Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Momentum Pictures

Release date: October 17th, 2011
Certificate (UK): 15
Running time: 108 minutes

Year of production: 2004

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

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

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.

Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

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.

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 seem to fall in love.

Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

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 ending up in exactly the same situation again; the process just didn’t go back far enough. Both Joel and Clementine were still essentially the same people and because their relationship wasn’t the event that defined who they were, they were still free to repeat those mistakes as Geivett, R. Douglas mentions in Faith, Film and Philosophy: Big Ideas on the Big Screen:

Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

“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.”

Further on Douglas says:

“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 essentially unchanged by the procedure but also points to there being ideas and impressions that make up who we are that cannot be erased. Whether or not these are innate or a product of experiences is not elaborated on though but sticking with the empiricist view lets say it’s the latter.

Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

In Thinking On Screen: Film as Philosophy, Thomas E. Wartenberg puts the focus on Lacuna Inc and asks whether or not they’re providing a service for the greater good and identifies some evidence for this:

“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.”

Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

Wartenberg highlights further evidence for Lacuna Inc providing a utilitarian service in the dialogue exchanged between Mary (Kirsten Dunst) and the technicians 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.”

By removing a person’s experience of traumatic event this leaves them vulnerable to repeat it. What we would be left with is a society filled with individuals doomed repeat the same sad mistakes over and over. Some would argue we already have that, so why would we add more to it? Negative consequences, like positive ones, are a way of learning, adapting and evolving.

Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

“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 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.


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

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a film that can be read on so many different levels and for all its whimsical visuals and irony (“Where’s the self-help section?”) this is the one thing I always come back to; experiences and the ability to learn from them. After all, that’s what makes us not just who we are as individuals, but human.

About Patrick Samuel

Patrick Samuel

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.