BEST FILMS OF THE DECADE #8

 

ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND 
(Michel Gondry) 2004  
a commentary by Tony McRae

There have been several very good movies about memory loss.  Think about  “Random Harvest” (1942) and “Groundhog Day” (1993), two of the best that have not lost their impact over the years. 

“Eternal Sunshine” is the creation of  Charlie Kaufmann who gave us “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation,”--that should tell you something about what you’re in for here.  

We first meet Joel Barish as he gets out of bed, rushes off to work, but instead of taking the westbound train to Manhattan he impulsively catches the eastbound to Montauk at the end of Long Island.  He walks the desolate wintry beach, a shy loner absorbed in himself.  This end-of-the-world location should be perfect for him.  Ah, solitude.  

It isn't meant to be.  For it is here he meets Clementine Kruczynski, she with the blue-dyed hair and bargain basement clothes and wacky antics, a compulsive talker to boot.  Do opposites attract?  We later learn that the name Clementine means clemency or grace.  Joel may not know it, but he has need of both.

Joel and Clementine (Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet) begin a relationship that eventually goes south. Both want out, she more than him.  One day impulsive Clem finds a doctor who runs a storefront clinic called Lacuna Inc, which specializes in the selective erasure of one's memory.  On a  lark she decides to obliterate Joel since the guy is really a loser.  Joel finds out about this and chooses to do the same thing—wipe Clementine from his memory. 

He asks Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkenson) if there is risk of brain damage.  He's told it's on a par with heavy drinking.  He might have been told that love relationships are tricky and can wreak havoc with memory.  Forgetting or remembering a "lost love," for example, especially when you want to forget, really want to forget, is problematic at best..  Same thing when you want to remember.  It seems the harder you try, the more elusive the memory becomes.  Of course this is not Lacuna's problem--they're into the clean slate business.

The good doctor assures Joel that when he wakes up in his own bed the morning after the "procedure," Clementine will be wiped away and Joel can resume his life with no unwanted baggage.  All he has to do in the interim is catalogue all the times he's been with Clementine, and Lacuna technicians will do the rest.

The second half of the movie takes place inside Carrey’s head.  As the erasing process is taking place in Joel's apartment, we see Joel and Clem together not necessarily chronologically since memory tends to work by its own rules.   At first all  goes swimmingly as Joel's encounters with Clementine are "caught" by the computer and eradicated from his memory:  their first meeting on a wintry beach--gone; making love--gone; eating Chinese--gone; the time she wrecks his car--history.  

But then...  

Clem and Joel are cuddling under a comforter and Clem tells him she's always thought she was ugly.  She asks him never to leave her.  They've never been closer.  Joel, in a voice-over, says:  "Please let me keep this memory--Just this one."  It's the hook that will eventually bring Clementine back to him.

What "saves" Joel Barish are all those unbidden memories, almost all showing Clem's effervescent personality, warts and all.  And now as she is being obliterated, he begins to comprehend the Clem as separate from himself, not his version of Clementine but her real self.

After they both discover what they have done, they meet again and it seems that this time their relationship may work.  But the Lacuna tapes fall into their hands and they hear each other reciting litanies of the other's faults.  Okay, that's it.  This really is the end.  Clem leaves his apartment and is walking down the hall when he runs after her and tells her to stop.  She is exasperated and asks "What?"  He shrugs and says "Wait.  Just wait."  They stare at each other.  He cannot articulate why he wants her to wait.  He wants her simply to be there.  This is enough.  

Here's their last conversation (in the movie, that is):

Clem:  I'm looking for my own piece of mind.
Joel:    I can't see anything I don't like about you.
Clem:  But you will...you will think of things.  And I'll get bored with you and you'll feel trapped because that's what happens with me.
Joel:    Okay.
Clem:  Okay.  Okay.

What both Joel and Clementine feel and do not articulate in this scene--perhaps it's not fully know to either--is that each has traces of the other in them, traces which have little if anything to do with memory, but which have imbued in them a sensitivity that trumps those idiosyncrasies that had pissed them off before.  Seeing Clem as she is, as she no doubt was even before they met, and accepting her as is, is pretty much a definition of love.  

"Eternal Sunshine" poses the question:  How do we forget?  Or remember, for that matter?  How do past events, especially those connected to a loved one, fade, or disappear completely?  All at once?  Gradually, little by little?  Chronologically?  Randomly?  Can parts of our past be tucked somewhere deep in our brain to be resurrected almost accidentally, magically, like Proust tasting a madeleine dipped in tea and opening up an entire world he had forgotten?

This may be the first film to make a serious attempt to visualize the process of forgetting, and the effort to hold on to the past.  Joel's initial attempt to rid himself of Clementine runs up against a stronger force, the growing awareness that his identity has been--and still is--bound up in her to the extent that if he were to lose her he could well lose himself.

Goodbye solitude.  Welcome to the messy world.  Welcome to a world that may be filled with grace.
*****
How happy is the blameless vestal's lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resign'd.
-- Alexander Pope, "Eloisa to Abelard"

Rated R (for language, some drug and sexual content).  

Buy the DVD at Amazon.com

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