Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the sophomore film of director Michel Gondry, has a flawless screenplay. Its tale is one of a shy man named Joel (an inoffensive Jim Carrey) and a girl he falls in love with after meeting her at a train station in Montauk, a girl by the name of Clementine (Kate Winslet). Joel, on the one hand, is reticent and reserved, while Clementine overflows with spontaneity and an unconscious hatred of the mundane. The two are drawn together as if the universe is beckoning them closer; who knows what souls are made of, but theirs appear to be created from the same thing.
Here Eternal Sunshine forgoes the traditional “boy-meets-girl, boy-falls-in-love, etc.” route. Instead the film goes from being an admittedly sweet romance-comedy to a science fiction-romance-comedy hybrid, with one of the most intelligent setups I’ve seen committed to film. We come to find out that in the past, Joel and Clementine were previously in a relationship. After a painful breakup, Clementine sought the services of New York-based company Lacuna Inc. to put her through a procedure that erases all of her memories with Joel. Joel, disheartened by her actions, retaliated by undergoing the same procedure.
And in this section of the movie, the genius of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman brilliantly shines through. The remainder of Eternal Sunshine takes place almost exclusively in Joel’s mind as the procedure erases his memories of his relationship. The film travels backwards through his psyche, starting with his most recent memories (ones that are not as deeply imbedded in his cerebrum and therefore easiest to erase), memories of bitter fights and arguments with his girlfriend. But as the movie progresses, he stumbles upon deeper reminiscences, ones of his first moments with Clementine, his feet beating upon the icy cold ground while his hand rests securely in Clementine’s. These are the small moments that at the time seemed inconsequential, but now form a barrier between forgetfulness and interminable recollection.
So now we’re back to where we started. What truly is the theme of Eternal Sunshine? There’s a lot to unpack, with major topics ranging from regret to the idea of subconsciousness to the law of attraction. But after summarizing the plot, it becomes unequivocally apparent what the true thematic forefront of the film is — the concept of memory. On a purely naturalistic, human level, memories exist as an utmost motivation for many of our actions. Many of our choices can be traced back to memory in some form or another — avoiding a song because it reminds us of an unsavory impression, or vice versa; playing a song in a certain situation because it triggers some enjoyable feeling. Memories can drive us to tears of happiness or ones of embarrassment; they can fill us with unadulterated fear or wistful nostalgia.
However, the Biblical sense of memory is much more sublime. God, omnisciently recognizing the inherent fault of human recollection, again and again throughout Scripture drills fundamental truths into our sin-tainted minds. For example, God is so conscious of our tendency to forget simple things that instead of gathering all the Israelites together and announcing to them that they are to not worship other deities, not steal, not lie, He creates two stone tablets with these iconic commandments writ upon them to remind the Israelites of these truths, and even after this they still construct a golden idol and exalt it above their maker. Jesus breaks bread and commands his disciples to eat it “in remembrance of him.” Indeed, Psalm 103:2 bids us to “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits…”
So in the end, what does Eternal Sunshine say, and how does its message coalesce with the Bible? The film’s theme can be boiled down to this sentence: “Erasing our memories does not change who we are as a person, past or present.” As Joel travels backwards through his memories, I think he grasps this concept, albeit much too late. As all his memory fades, as he runs from the erasing process, and as his subconscious effectively collapses around him, a touching portion of the story concludes the film. Joel and Clementine are at a beach house (this is where Joel first met her). Clementine, ever so impulsive, runs into the house, which is quite literally collapsing as Joel’s memory of it fades. Joel follows her beckonings, and the house begins to fall apart, threatening to crush them under its weight. The destruction is of Joel’s own doing — the normally pristine beach, once crisp and untainted in his memory, falls apart under the weight of his choices. As Joel stands in the wreckage of the house and effectively the remainder of his pleasant memories, Clementine whispers as a mother would lull her infant to sleep, “Meet me in Montauk…”
And we’re back to the train station in Montauk. Joel and Clementine stare at each other, as if they knew each other from some past life. Why even erase the memories? Somehow, the two are bound to each other. And even after discovering this disremembered part of the past, they opt to give it another shot. Eternal sunshine doesn’t come from a clean, naive, spotless mind, the two come to find. It comes from a dedication to one another. It comes from boundless, spotless adoration that may be tainted by human brokenness, but if picked at like a prisoner picks at a wall to escape his present state, may result in happiness. Even our happiness can be counseled by the tragedy of the past. So we must retain it, pain and all. For then we are bathed in everlasting, eternal sunshine.