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
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.
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.
Douglas goes on to say,
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?
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 Dunst) and the technicians, Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and Patrick (Elijah Wood), during Joel’s procedure:
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.
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.
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.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .