Memories are weird. They are essential to human existence yet they are so very inconsistent. A memory of a particularly bad meal may be a more vivid, long lasting memory than what your grandmother’s voice sounded like. Memories simultaneously shape us and are shaped by us. Some are with us forever while others fade away moments after they are made. They are exciting, they are tragic, they are funny, and they are at times nearly indescribable. So of course one of the greatest love stories ever made is about memories.
Joel Barish has just learned that his girlfriend Clementine has hired a service to erase him from her memory– at least it seems at first like he’s just learned that. In actuality, he learned that a few days ago. It becomes overwhelmingly
apparent that what the audience is seeing is Joel going through his own treatment to erase Clementine from his mind. As we watch Joel’s relationship with Clementine in reverse order we slowly come to realize that they have both played a huge role in each other’s life over the year they’ve been together. As we look through Joel’s rapidly eroding memory we see a near perfect portrait of a relationship that has hope but ultimately fell apart through stagnation and a building of resentment. It is a very real, deeply affecting, portrayal of love and emotional intimacy.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is not concerned with explaining itself to you. Screenwriters Pierre Bismuth and Charlie Kaufman and director
Michel Gondry understand that their audience is capable of understanding the concepts they lay out in this film, so they focus on delivering an impactful and entertaining film rather than attempting to teach the audience what they can figure out themselves. This leads to a highly engaging film. The direction is impeccable with Gondry nailing the dreamlike tone of the story. The film has so many visual effects, both practical and digital, that inspire wonder in the viewer. From a giant kitchen for a memory of Joel as a toddler to make him look tiny, to a heartbreaking sequence involving a dissolving house. The filmmakers draw such a vast range of emotions through both the characters and the setting.
I truly believe that this film captures the pain of a failed relationship wonderfully. I feel like a common reaction to feeling hurt and abandoned by
someone is to wish you never met them in the first place. However as Joel quickly discovers, human relationships are a lot more complex than positives and negatives. Memories, like relationships, are filled with nuance. To try to forget the people that are intrinsically a part of you is as impossible as trying to forget an annoying ad jingle. No matter what happens it always comes back.
Gondry, Kaufman and Bismuth understand this and channel pure humanity into their film. They present it through the lens of a quirky, existential, understated, emotional trip through a microcosm of a small cast of characters. There will never be another film like Eternal Sunshine and I don’t think even this same exact crew could replicate it exactly. It is as unique and wondrous as the memories it portrays on screen.