Everyone has that one movie that changed their life first. Even if many films thereafter astound, mesmerize and enchant you, you’ll always remember the first that made you capable of even seeing other films in those kinds of ways. For me, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, released in March of 2004, is that very film. When I first saw it, I didn’t necessarily get it—I understood it to some degree, but I didn’t get it, and yes, there is a difference. But, it hooked me somehow; it hypnotized me in a way that no other film had up until that point. It begged me to watch it again, and again, and again.
Ten years later, and I still watch it, with fresh eyes and a sense of wonder, of whimsy, and of intense admiration. But, I have never written about it until now. I sometimes wonder: had I been this present-version-of-myself back in 2004— would I be able to write about it? Even now, I feel as though the film shapes itself into something slightly different with each viewing as I grow and learn and change. The film remains stagnant on the other hand, though, maintaining its ever-rightful place as my favorite film, and it deserves its own kind of birthday/anniversary homage from me. This post will serve as not only a retrospective review, but also a consideration of what, if any, legacy has this film left us with.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, directed by Michel Gondry and co-written by Charlie Kaufman, stars Jim Carrey as Joel Barish and Kate Winslet as Clementine Kruczynski. The story is a non-linear romance, a heartbreakingly plausible love story told in a highly stylized, science-fiction way, and it begs questions of memory and fate. I’m already getting ahead of myself, as the film often does anyway. It isn’t until the end, or perhaps even a second viewing, that one truly grasps the back-and-forth conception of time that the film operates within, the ebb-and-flow sense of fantasy and memory, alternating exquisitely with a present, though fictional, reality.
Clementine is self-conscious but abrasive, quirky but complicated, and impulsive above all else; she uses the services of Lacuna Inc. to erase her memories of the far more introverted Joel, when their relationship turns sour out of boring complacency. Joel, upon learning this news indirectly, decides to have her erased as well. The film weaves in and out of his memories as he is reliving them, realizing through the procedure that he still loves Clementine and does not truly want to erase her after all.
The concept itself is haunting, but only Gondry and Kaufman could have executed it so fluidly. The science-fiction elements of it feel as nuanced and feasible as the love between Joel and Clementine. As a romance then, the film does what no Hollywood romance could do as eloquently either. Joel’s memories are the kinds of memories we could easily have ourselves, somehow; memories of eating at the same Chinese food restaurant, of arguing at a flea market about having children, of suffocating each other with pillows as a game, of laying on a frozen river together, or even of going to a drive-in movie but adding their own humorous dialogue.
For someone who hasn’t seen the film, these things might seem banal but for the film itself, that banality is the very definition of its protagonists’ love, and it is what makes this movie accessible while also seeming fantastical. The balance is crucial, and it is achieved seamlessly. Every edit sucks us out of one memory and zooms into another. Every movement of the camera and visual concept manifests colorfully. The physical and the cerebral and the magical all blend and blur together in a way that never ceases to excite and fascinate me.
I still feel as though I’m not doing the movie justice. It needs to be seen, and it needs to be seen more than once, in my opinion. Its twists may be minor, but they are palpable and deeply affecting. If any themes are meant to stick with you, I’d say the question of whether certain things are simply meant to be is a huge consideration to start with. The film feels prophetic, but in an emotional way even if not in some larger philosophical way. And, is Lacuna Inc. ethical? The movie seems intent on splatter-painting a sort of modern-art portrait of memory and regret, and unpretentiously prods us to contemplate whether keeping our memories might be worth the pain of them, especially when the subject of those memories is already lost.
Analysis and praise aside, I wonder if we’ve been given anything in the last ten years remotely similar to this film. Gondry’s last two films—The Green Hornet (2011) and Be Kind Rewind (2008)—were far less well-received and, having seen them both, I would argue that they were a bit of a downgrade in terms of his usual precision and originality in delivering mind-bending narratives and the matching aesthetics. I like Science of Sleep (2006), but that feels much more art-house and intimate in nature, which is neither a good thing nor a bad thing necessarily in comparing to Eternal Sunshine. Jim Carrey gives what I deem to be one of his best performances and since then, I don’t think we’ve seen enough dramatic work from Carrey, and he’s underrated in that realm as a result. Kate Winslet is always amazing, but this film seemed like such an intriguing role for her. Many of her roles since—acting talent notwithstanding—have been more predictable than the wholly-unpredictable, neon-haired Clementine.
Maybe I’m generalizing. But, my point is, I don’t think Eternal Sunshine has been reincarnated, not widely or effectively at least, because it simply cannot be done. Sure, 500 Days of Summer (2009) was an unconventional, non-linear romance told with musicality by Marc Webb, but with none of the same sci-fi to propel its offbeat nature in quite the same way. And yes, The Adjustment Bureau (2011) had romance and sci-fi and dealt with destiny and agency, but where was the musicality in its inconsistent tone?
Eternal Sunshine weaves in and out of so many conventions but also defies them and makes its own seemingly on the spot. It is singular and unique and that is why, I’d argue, it is so timeless. I think the film has aged gracefully over these ten years and will continue to do so, and if it isn’t considered a true classic already, I like to think that it will be remembered as such eventually. And as ever-evolving as my own interpretations have been of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind over these last ten years, I’d never wish for anyone to take away my similarly-evolving memories of the film. Because, nobody should forget the first film that made them love movies.
Sara majors in Film Studies and Media & Communication at Muhlenberg College. Her favorite genre is horror but she loves learning, writing and talking about all kinds of movies and all forms of entertainment. She has interned with Film Forum and Tribeca Film, both in her native NYC where she hopes to find work in criticism, marketing, distribution, or festival programming post-grad. Her blog and associated Twitter were created with the intention of being more involved and aware of happenings in the film and television industries, as well as to practice writing about pop culture in an academic but friendly and funny way.