Spring is now upon us and the season of love has lived out its course for the year, and in each waking second of those blissful early February days, I recite the words spoken by Joel Barrish: “Valentine's Day is a holiday invented by greeting card companies to make people feel like crap.” This brilliant phrase, written by Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, is the start of one of the greatest character studies and dramas ever put to film: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. A film many consider to be Director, Michel Gondry’s masterpiece, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a typical breakup story with a science-fiction twist. After Joel Barrish and Clementine Kruczynski have a catastrophic breakup, Clementine makes the impulsive decision to erase every memory involving her ex, and out of spite, Joel does the same. The film takes place inside of Joel’s head as their entire relationship unfolds beneath his eyes and regrets the decision he made, but all he can do is watch and try to cling to the fading memories that he once had. Many film enthusiasts praise this film for its earnest portrayal of the main characters, others praise the brilliant storytelling by Charlie Kaufman, and even the score by Jon Brion has gained waves of praise. This film is universally loved and understandably so, and today is my turn to get on that bandwagon.
The film, while complicated and sophisticated in its presentation, has a very simple and impactful message that is buried within. As said by Thom Yorke of Radiohead: “True Love Waits”. Now, what do I mean by that? What constitutes true love and how is this film in particular indicative of it? The answer is simple, Clementine. As a character, Clementine is the complexity of love personified into a human vessel. She is first introduced to the audience as a passenger who sat in front of Joel on a train to Montauk, she is as big a mystery to Joel as she is to the audience. They engaged in casual conversation and immediate had chemistry, both were making quips off of one another’s expense and it was abnormally friendly. After their exchanges, the film fades out and back to the sight of a disheveled Joel, driving in the pitch black of night while wiping the constant stream of tears running down his face. This stark change in tone is the first moment when I realized that this film was something special. It poses so many questions in the viewer’s head about what could’ve happened to make him feel this hopeless, and it is expertly portrayed by Jim Carrey’s impeccable performance, which is easily one of the most brilliant things the man has ever done. This scene is also masterfully scored by Beck’s cover of “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime” which makes the message even more impactful than it already is. The audience later finds out that the scene takes place before the previous, after the heartbreak he faced with Clementine for the first time. Clementine is purposely developed as a very unpredictable and impulsive person by nature. She does things that she doesn't second guess at all. She is often very loving but can change in an instant if she is provoked or prodded. She is a very complex and multi-layered character that perfectly encapsulates love's unpredictable and unforgiving nature. From the brief moments of chemistry and romance to the shouts of anger in the heat of night, Clementine is viewed as a personified metaphor as love through the struggles it presents. Charlie Kaufman knew what he was doing when writing Clementine and the dynamics between her and Joel, as these are extremely important to the development of the story itself.
The memory-erasing plot, while sounding hoaky and cheesy at first, becomes an integral part of the story and one of the most unique set pieces for a drama. The mind is a palace full of unprecedented thoughts, full of memories and faults that only you possess. Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman wanted to capture these aspects in their full colors and dissect the human psyche with all of its complexities; unadulterated. As the film progresses, you learn about Joel's biggest fears, his childhood, his favorite memories, his least favorite memories, how his relationship with Clementine first began and how it ended. All of which goes on as three neuroscientists erase these core memories from his brain. As the film progresses, these memories can become warped, distorted, and hazy in their presentation since they're being removed. Joel begins to realize the importance of these memories and regrets making the decision to follow in Clementine's footsteps. In a desperate plea with his own psyche, he begins to speak with his mind's interpretation of Clementine, speaking to her as if it really was his long lost love. He asks her many questions of why certain things have happened and scarily enough, and she replies with his own perception of what her answers might’ve been, showing you just how much of an emotional rollercoaster their relationship was. He promises to “her,” that he will do better, that he will become the man that she needs, and that he will change. She utters the infamous phrase back: "Meet me in Montauk". Standing as one of the most emotionally dense lines in the film which concludes the heartbreaking journey in the mind of Joel Barrish. He wakes up the next morning in his dreary apartment, not remembering a thing. Certain things were misplaced (due to the neuroscientists partying in his apartment as the procedure was taking place) and particular things just didn't align. At this point the audience realizes, this is where the film had begun, and this is where the brilliance comes into fruition.
In the beginning of the film, as Joel runs away from the train exit that he originally had boarded, the audience was clueless about his motive. But, as these scenes replay and as the audience gains context as to why these events are occurring. We realize the genius of Charlie Kaufman as a writer. He eloquently shows the audience bits and pieces over the entire duration of a film and leaves it up to interpretation. These little clues all align to form this gorgeous constellation of a story that leaves the viewer in awe of its beauty and complexity. The ending is especially evident of this. As Joel takes Clementine to her apartment and they hear the tape that one of the neuroscientists left after she ransacked the facility, they reach an epiphany, and realize that they are not just strangers but in fact, used to be a couple. Clementine is reluctant to this realization while Joel tries to pursue the opportunity that is given to him. She claims that she can’t be loved and that it’s only a waste of time to even be with her. She asks if he can handle that and in all sincerity, he says “Okay”. Almost replicating the impulsive natures that Clementine displayed previously. The final shot of the film shows the couple running on the beach as music fades into the scene, the shot is clipped and played 3 times to imply that the relationship is doomed to fall again but will find its peace sooner or later.
True love always finds people in darkness, when everything seems down and nothing seems to find you with good intentions, true love will always direct its course and follow your path. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a film that perfectly exemplifies philosophy. What Charlie Kaufman and company accomplished with this film is unprecedented compared to other movies that were being released at the time. It’s inventive, bold, thought-provoking, emotionally scathing, and in a bizarrely tragic way: hopeful. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a film that many hold in high regard and is easily one of the most impactful pieces of media I have ever had the joy of witnessing. The spectacular performances, enchanting score, sinister visuals, brilliant writing, all of it coalesces into this masterpiece of filmmaking that is unlike any film in its lane.