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Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

By Patrick Samuel • June 14th, 2013
Focus Features

Original release: March 19th, 2004
Running time: 109 minutes

Director: Michel Gondry
Writers: Michel Gondry, Charlie Kaufman, Pierre Bismuth

Cast: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Tom Wilkinson, Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst, Elijah Wood

Clem erased 01:24:21 to 01:31:44

Deconstructing Cinema: One Scene At A Time, the complete series so far

Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

What makes us who we are? There are many ways to answer that question, ranging from how we look and what we wear, to our jobs, families and relationships. If we’re to arrive at something that’s closer to the truth we’d have to dig much deeper though. It’s more than just our experiences; it’s also the ability to remember them and to learn from them.

What happens then when we either lose or give up these memories, as the characters in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind do? Are they still those same people or are they free to start new lives? It’s just one in a series of questions that arise when watching this unique and thoughtful film, but it’s the one I find most compelling. The issue of personal identity is something that affects us all.

Directed by Michel Gondry and scripted by Charlie Kaufman, it’s a film that not only took me by surprise when I first saw it, but it’s also one I instantly fell in love with and would never dream of having that memory erased, no matter what else might happen in my life.

In the film we meet Joel Barish (Jim Carrey), a man who’s depressed and experiencing something of a crisis of existence. He’s at odds with why he’s here and while he’s trying to figure that out he tends to disappear from where he’s supposed to be – at work. Spending the day at the beach he meets Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet), a young woman who really doesn’t seem to care why she’s here, she’s just happy that she is. Her free spirited nature comes as a jolt to Joel’s dreary existence and despite their vast differences they somehow fall in love.

The twist to this story is that Joel and Clementine have been here before but neither of them recall the two years they spent together. Having grown unhappy with the relationship the first time round, Clementine went to Lacuna Inc, a company that specialises in the fictional procedure of selective memory erasure, to have her memories of Joel erased. When Joel discovers this, the first time round, heartbroken and devastated, he decides to undergo the same procedure.

Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

Having rid themselves of the memories of each other and free to start new lives they end up in exactly the same situation again; the process just didn’t go back far enough. Both Joel and Clementine are still the same people and because their relationship wasn’t the event that defined who they were, they’re still free to repeat those mistakes.

“The wiping process does not change them either in a metaphysical way or in a deeply psychological way. They have the same dispositions to be attracted to each other as they did before.” ¹

Douglas goes on to say,

“That personal identity is deeper than memory is further indicated by the peculiar experience of characters who have had the memory wipe: they each find themselves still deeply attracted to the same people as before. Joel and Clementine are willing to create a relationship they know will be difficult. What makes a person the particular person she is cannot be easily erased.”

Douglas confirms the idea that Joel and Clementine are unchanged by the procedure but also points to the idea that what makes us who we are can’t be erased, but what about the company administering the procedure? Is there any evidence to suggest Lacuna Inc are providing a service for the greater good?

“At one level, the film takes the justification to be self-evident: People who are experiencing a great deal of psychological pain choose to undergo selective memory erasure because it promises them relief from that pain. In addition to the lovers who choose to erase their painful memories of each other, we see an oriental woman who appears to be so distressed over the death of her cat that she is going to erase all her memories of her feline companion. We also hear a woman who has called the clinic being told that she cannot schedule yet a third memory erasure in a short time period. The film presents the technique as popular, with the doctor having an always-crowded waiting room. So, on the surface at least, the procedure seems justified because it produces so much happiness for those upon whom it is used.” ²

Another piece of evidence to support the idea that Lacuna Inc is providing a service for the greater good can be seen in the dialogue exchanged between Mary (Kirsten Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind Dunst) and the technicians, Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and Patrick (Elijah Wood), during Joel’s procedure:

“It’s amazing. What Howard gives the world. To let people begin again. It’s beautiful. You look at a baby and it’s so pure and so free and so clean. Adults are like this mess of sadness and phobias. And Howard just makes it all go away.”

However, it’s a little more complicated than that. By removing a person’s experience of traumatic event this leaves them vulnerable to repeat it. Negative consequences, like positive ones, are a way of learning, adapting and evolving.

“The narrative of Eternal Sunshine is structured to allow us to realize that the technology of selective memory erasure that it portrays is problematic because it ignores the educative function that memory has in relation to desire. Each of the lovers in the film has a desire to be involved with their respective partner. When the negative memories resulting from pursuing their desires are erased, the education their desires had undergone is also erased along with the memories. It is for this reason that they become subject to the recidivism problem: Their desires are given full rein without the education they would have received from the memory of the results of their fulfilment.”

As I watch the film, and I’ve seen it many times now, each time I’m always struck by one scene in particular which tells us that despite the technology being available to make it possible, it might not be the best thing for us to do. It comes very near the end, but I have to walk you up to it.

During the procedure, Joel realises he doesn’t want to have his memories of Clem erased and fights to wake up. His unconscious self is reliving these memories but incorporated into this world are disembodied voices and things that keep disappearing. It’s a surreal and fascinating moment as we see Joel trying to hold on to Clem by running away from his memories as they’re being erased. Finally she suggests that he “hide” her someplace she doesn’t belong, and the only place he can think of is his childhood.

Joel shrinks back to four years old and we see him wearing his pyjamas, hiding under the table, trying to open the fridge door and throwing a tantrum when no one pays attention to him, all while Clem is trying to calm him by telling him her crotch is still here, just as he remembered it. “Yuck!” he replies.

Back in the waking world Stan and Mary are high and the equipment is malfunctioning, so they call Howard for help. Meanwhile, real-time Clem is having a breakdown and is being comforted by Patrick who fell in love with her while erasing her memories. We then go back inside Joel’s head, flashing past his memories of Clem as they’re being erased and he’s only got one left – the day they first met.


  • [1] Douglas, G. R. Faith, Film and Philosophy: Big Ideas on the Big Screen (2007), Intervarsity Press
  • [2]Wartenburg, T. E. In Thinking On Screen: Film as Philosophy(2009), T & F Books UK

We see them at a deserted beach house, she’s got green hair, he’s got a plate of chicken. They start talking and they’re both aware this is the last memory he’s got left of her. It’s such a beautiful and melancholic scene that’s played out so naturally before it all fades to black. For all that it was, and all that it wasn’t it, it doesn’t matter anymore because now those memories are gone forever.

Though Joel and Clementine decide to try again with each other, despite knowing how it ended before, we’re left with one of two possibilities – fate or that selective memory erasures are not effective nor do they serve a greater good in the long term. While it solves a short term problem for people like Joel and Clementine who want to avoid the pain of a break-up rather than allowing themselves the time to go through the process naturally, it robs them of the opportunity to learn from the experience, become better people and avoid making the same mistakes again in the future.

Patrick Samuel

Patrick Samuel

The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is an emerging artist with a philosophy degree, working primarily with pastels and graphite pencils, but he also enjoys experimenting with water colours, acrylics, glass and oil paints.

Being on the autistic spectrum with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is stimulated by bold, contrasting colours, intricate details, multiple textures, and varying shades of light and dark. Patrick's work extends to sound and video, and when not drawing or painting, he can be found working on projects he shares online with his followers.

Patrick returned to drawing and painting after a prolonged break in December 2016 as part of his daily art therapy, and is now making the transition to being a full-time artist. As a spokesperson for autism awareness, he also gives talks and presentations on the benefits of creative therapy.

Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and science fiction, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.

Patrick Samuel ¦ Asperger Artist

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