Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

It hugely frustrates me that films rarely portray relationships with all their flaws, in tandem with the usual start of the relationship falling-in-love montage. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004) is a gorgeous combination of innovative cinematography, a strong cast and a fragmented narrative about a turbulent relationship.

Set in a near future where mind control has become akin to private medical treatment, individuals have been given the option to erase memories pertaining to another person. Dr Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) runs Lacuna Inc, a clinic specialising in memory wiping with the assistance of Mary (Kirsten Dunst), Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and Patrick (Elijah Wood). Dr Mierzwiak refers to the treatment as a type of controlled “brain damage” and makes a throwaway remark that post Valentine’s is the most prolific time for Lacuna.

Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) have a difficult relationship, to put it mildly. The film chronicles their relationship in non-linear sequence, with surreal scenes that take place in Joel’s own memories. The film revisits moments in their intersecting lives that are both painful and beautiful, documenting conversations, desires and arguments, as well as unspoken emotions relating to those memories.

The two protagonists have contrasting personalities; Joel is taciturn, self-deprecating and socially anxious whilst Clementine is impulsive, wild and passionate. Clementine and Joel antagonise and manipulate each other, in a way that only two people with complete intimacy can. The narrative of their unlikely relationship revolves around themes of love and loss, as well as the underlying question of whether a relationship is ever irrevocably broken. Both Joel and Clementine are affected by their choices, whether motivated by spite or impulse, they must live with the consequences of altering their memories. This raises questions of selfhood and purpose; are we simply the sum of memories? Are memories inextricably connected? Can we re-write our own histories?


When the lines between professional and personal blur, the staff at Lacuna become entangled with Joel and Clementine’s relationship. It seems almost unavoidable that those involved in the process get invested in some cases, and the information that they are privy to is liable to abuse. Issues of power, consent and privacy are prevalent when a sense of deja-vu overcomes Clementine and Joel, and the film questions whether attraction is innate and inevitable.

This is one of the most memorable scenes, which directly addresses the manic pixie dream girl trope. I love pretty much all the dialogue; for me it has the same sense of realism as Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight or ‘anti-rom-coms’ like 500 Days of Summer. Ironically, Winslet’s protagonist is addressing Zooey Deschanel‘s usual choice of roles as the aforementioned ‘manic pixie dream girl’. Whilst Clementine is a troubled character, she is rounded and well-developed in the film. She self-consciously addresses the audience’s expectations of female protagonists to fulfil an archetype, but Clementine’s character refuses to play a role. The characters are all flawed, but that’s what makes them relatable.

Eternal Sunshine remains one of my favourite films, as it takes a Sci-Fi trope with many connotations and sets it in a world not dissimilar from our own. The use of non-linear narrative works as a metaphor for the fragmentation of the characters’ minds, and allows the audience privileged access to their memories.

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