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Revolutions of Relationships : Remembering Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Boy meets girl. Girl erases boy. Boy tries everything within his mental capabilities to remember girl. So goes the plot of 2004’s, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Michel Gondry, two men who live in surreality and matryoshka fables. Main characters, Joel and Clementine’s story begins from the outmost edge, and then travels inward to reveal the messy intricacies of what it means to know and love someone. At the painful end of a two-year relationship, Clementine decides remembering Joel, and the person she became while with him, is too painful. Luckily, Lacuna Inc. specializes in misery removal. This company maps relationship memories (a former flame, a deceased pet) within your brain, and subsequently eradicates the very neurotransmitters that would ever lead you to think of the forgotten ever again. It is a procedure based on finality; but what if someone, in the throes of the drugged-up procedure, wants to call it off?

Joel also carries the emotional baggage of his memories of Clementine, and upon finding out that she has erased him entirely from her life, he chooses to undergo the procedure as well. We spend the bulk of the film within Joel’s memories as Lacuna is gradually taking them away. As Lacuna travels further and further back in time within his mind, the tarnish of the negative memories disappear, and Joel begins to see the good memories more clearly than he had in months. Lacuna doesn’t discriminate between good and bad memories, and per their policy, all memories must go for their work to be truly successful. Joel, trapped inside his extremely paralyzed body, (but remembering happier and happier moments of love), becomes desperate to stop the procedure. The Clementine version of Joel’s subconscious suggests hiding her in memories altogether unrelated to their union, hopefully saving a piece of her in a memory Lacuna won’t be able to find.

Eternal Sunshine certainly succeeds at intimating a beautiful romance rife with real problems, but it does itself one better by also subtly signaling the importance of self-awareness. Joel’s first revisited memory when Lacuna begins the procedure depicts him as an unreliable narrator. A conversation he had just had with his neighbor is repeated, but with missing dialogue, to set the tone for the remainder of the memories. If even the most recent of memories is not entirely accurate, it’s safe to say the further distanced memories have the possibility to be distorted as well. The Clementine we see Joel falling back in love with may not be the real Clementine, but her caricature is raw and genuine. Joel remembers both himself and Clementine as incredibly flawed messes of people: he even paints himself as less than charming in many circumstances. We revisit wily Clementine challenging reserved Joel, and vice-versa, but after many small and large blows to their egos, they forgot the importance of appreciating their differences.

Externally from Joel’s mind, two Lacuna Inc. employees also face the backlash of one choosing to undergo the procedure. Dr. Howard Mierzwiak and his receptionist, Mary, had an affair in their past, but only he knows about it. Mary erased the affair from her memory, but it didn’t change the way she ultimately feels about him, causing history to repeat itself. Erasing the memories of the past is one thing, but Lacuna doesn’t specialize in dissecting the emotions associated with the heart. Howard has to reveal their past to Mary when she, in a passionate admission, kisses him and tells him she’s been in love with him for a very long time. The knowledge of her past completely changes her opinion on the work that they do. She once saw it as a beautiful kindness done unto their patients, removing their pain and giving them a fresh start; she now sees the procedure as a robbery. In her grief, Mary decides to mail Lacuna’s patients their files, detailing their forgotten memories. Her actions force the recently reunited Joel and Clementine to face their past and question their importance to each other.

What Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind does so well is portray a couple of people who ultimately might not be the right fit for each other. Their relationship is complicated and conflicting, but they care about one another immensely, or at least they did. Although Lacuna may provide a polarizing procedure, the benefit for Joel and Clementine is that they get to begin their relationship anew with the knowledge they can drop their facades. By admitting their faults up front, the relationship has the freedom to honestly breathe, and the two can enjoy reacquainting themselves with what they love about each other. The puzzle-of-a-plot screenwriting lyrically expresses the beauty in letting someone be who he or she is, baggage and all. Joel and Clementine know they can get under each other's skin, but they choose to accept it. In Joel’s last Lacuna-stolen memory, he confesses to Clementine that he wished he had stayed with her the first night they met, but left her in confusion and embarrassment. Deciding to stick around for the second run of their relationship is just the first step in their emotional recovery. Deciding to embrace their differences and forget their associated hang-ups, that’s what commitment’s all about.


Bernadette Gorman-White

Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using. She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full. She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.




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