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Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) meet cute on a train to Montauk, Long Island and hit it off straight away mostly because they’ve actually not only met before but were in fact former lovers. That’s because they don’t remember. Each have had their memories of the other erased, or at least are in the process of doing so. But Joel begins having second thoughts, and desperately tries to hide the memories of Clementine deeper into his subconscious so the extractors can’t find them. As he scurries about his fading past with a woman who has caused him great sorrow but even greater joy, he learns his life is meaningless with her, and to win her back is to start again.
Written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Michael Gondry, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a truly unique experience and may not be for everyone as its narrative is anything but linear, but the challenges are worth the rewards in this nearly perfect work of art. That begins with the performances. Jim Carrey, who at this point was still breaking the mold he so famously created, is devastatingly good, creating a powerfully affecting character in Joel, a man we recognize has flaws, but one we can identify with because of his vulnerabilities. Much like The Truman Show and Man on the Moon, Carrey shatters expectations (as did Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love), being the perfect complement to the intoxicatingly alluring Winslet. This is not a movie, but a transcending experience.
(Spoilers Ahead) Traveling through Joel’s mind, as the memories of his relationship with Clementine crumble around him, is a surreal journey of often disorienting, sometimes tragic, but always arresting imagery that confounds and inspires our own perspectives. As Joel realizes he’s made a mistake in trying to erase this imperfect yet beguiling girl, his fear and frustration begin to tear him down along with the memories he is desperately struggling to keep. When the two realize what has happened and who they really are to each other, Joel doesn’t care about the past and wants only to do it again while Clementine rushes away, too scared to try.
She enters the hallway, intent on leaving, but behind her, Joel follows with a desperate plea: “Wait.” It’s a simple word with a world of weight and Joel wields it as ungainly as a new lover should but is, at least with some fragility, successfully. She is convinced that they are not meant to be, that as before, for whatever reasons there were, they will find each other losing love instead of keeping it, despite what passion and power both have for each other right in this moment. There’s an aching tenderness to the two and a seemingly indivisible will to be together no matter that history and future, and that right there is why “wait” is the most important word Joel and Clementine share.
What is worth remembering when you already know it will end in heartache? That is Clementine’s fate (and Joel’s as well). She sees the future, knows their past and despite the love she feels for Joel, isn’t sure it’s worth doing again, even if she can’t remember why they ended it in the first place. For Joel, there is something deeper in it all, a conviction that the bond that binds them is more significant then the gaps that separate them. As the memories of their relationship are being erased it motivates them to try and hold on to whatever they have left, and while both have different apprehensions, there is no doubt something special exists between them.
We often wish we could forget parts of our past, and Kaufman challenges us to consider what that would be like, using that template to revisit not only moments that make up the important memories of a relationship, but also the impactful moments in childhood that have come to define them. We spend most of that time in Joel’s mind as the collapsing images of his days with Clementine crumble away, and the lingering effects of moments when he was young tying many of them together.
The important thing about this process is how deeply Clementine is buried in Joel’s mind, as she occupies every recess and darkened shadowed of his thoughts. As the memories fade, they go in reverse to the starting point, and Joel gets to relive much of what made them a difficult but ultimately effectual couple, realizing much about their purpose together. They are meant to be one.
Gondry’s film is filled with moments of visual splendor that bend our concept of reality. The imagery in Eternal Sunshine is astounding and forces us to consider much of what we are truly seeing. Yet here, the most powerful scene comes with only a hallway and two actors. No effects. But that doesn’t mean it’s devoid of interpretation. It arrives when they realize they’ve met before, having seen the records of their memory wipes and learning that both had agreed to have the other removed from their thoughts. That is a powerful indicator of what their relationship devolved to and reason enough for Clementine to not want to try again. Not so for Joel, who is more concerned with how it feels right now, believing in the capacity within them both to learn from what they know, and to attempt it again. That’s not something new. Many couples try again even with the knowledge of their failures. What’s different is that Joel and Clementine don’t know where it went wrong, only that it did.
And here is where the significance of ‘wait’ has its greatest impact. We see Clementine enter the hallway, a clean sporadically lit chasm that offers doors and exits on either side, a metaphor for where they’ve been and where each might go. It feel claustrophobic yet its echo gives it expanse. She is bundled and layered in heaps of clothes, weighted down by the idiosyncrasies of who she is, a visible collection of all the wonders and distractions she represents. She clings to the right side of the hall (in our perspective), traditionally a position of order and consistency.
Joel enters the frame behind her, and says, “Wait.” The word echoes and reverberates about the hall. She turns and sighs with inner conflict. He steps into the chasm and clings to the left, traditionally a position of movement and change. She is frustrated by the situation and with exasperation, asks him what he wants, to which he replies again to just wait. He doesn’t know why or for what reason, only that she do it. What follows is a beautiful, long, contemplative moment where ‘wait’ is exactly what we do. It’s a glorious eleven seconds and it hangs entirely on Clementine, who has the power to end or continue the moment.
When Clementine breaks, it is a deeply emotional expression of total surrender. Her body shifts, her face changes and she loses her stability, forced to lean against the wall. When she breathes again, it’s exhausting and yet it signals such tremendous hope, is pulls Joel forward as if on a line. She then sends up a verbal offense, a weak volley of self-deprecating descriptors that are met with an easy defense. Joel doesn’t care. His response is, “Okay.” And then, quietly, perfectly, so is hers.
We are a complicated species where love is one of our defining characteristics. We are compelled by more than the need for sex, even if that need is the motivation for how many meet. There is a deeper need for people, a lust for companionship, to share and be involved, to bring peace and be at peace, to accept and be accepted, all with another human being. It drives us to compulsion and obsession, to sadness and grief, to great joy and horrific despair, but we are never in want to be without it. Joel and Clementine are each of us, a couple bound by something we are all connected by, a love that is tenuous and yet eternal, one we search for and long for and never give up on. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a masterpiece of direction, plot and performances, and one of the greatest love stories ever put on film.