“I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.”
“In Memoriam A.H.H.”, Canto 27, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
That stanza from Tennyson, specifically its last two lines, is perhaps the most quoted bit from one of the most quoted figures in the history of world literature. It’s easy to see why. It almost argues in favor of heartbreak; suggesting that the pain of bereavement or separation pales in comparison to the hypothetical emotional void caused by that love never being there in the first place. Tennyson’s poem was about and dedicated to his close college friend Arthur Hallam, but most who quote it do so in regards to the untimely end (whether it be via death or breakup) of a romantic relationship. Michael Gondry’s 2004 opus Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind –penned by the always exploratory Charlie Kaufman- is a film that tackles the “better to have loved and lost” idea in an off-kilter, nonlinear, uncomfortably human manner that forces the viewer to take stock of the relationships in their own life, both past and present.
The premise is simple enough. The bashful Joel (Jim Carrey) discovers that his former lover Clementine (Kate Winslet), almost a cliché composite character of free spirited folk, has undergone a memory erasure procedure that had him completely wiped from her memory due to the less than ideal way their relationship ended. He visits Lacuna, Inc., the company that performs this procedure, and decides to endure it himself. After gathering all trinkets that could possibly spark a memory of Clementine, Joel has his memory wiped in his apartment while he sleeps. Employees from Lacuna (played by Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, and Kirsten Dunst) perform the procedure as we experience Joel’s memories of Clementine in reverse order. It gets a bit more complex when sleeping Joel realizes what’s going on and the employees are given tragic relationships of their own, but the meat of the film are the relationship vignettes between Joel and Clem; the highs, the lows, and the details that transcend this single relationship.
Eternal Sunshine does a brilliant job choosing which moments to highlight in a relationship. There’s the initial attraction, where everything is fun and carefree. There’s the apathy that inevitably sets in (“Are we one of those couples at restaurants?”). Then there’s the fighting. The fighting here is so real and anti-cinematic in a sense. Like most fights between loved ones –whether it be a romantic partner, family member, friend, etc.- nothing actually happens to start the fight. Instead, a little slip of the tongue from one party gives the other an excuse to let months of pent up anger come to a boil. Most fights in a relationship aren’t actually about what we pretend they’re about. In Eternal Sunshine, Joel’s subtle comments on Clem’s drinking and her being unfit to be a mother cause her to explode, but her anger doesn’t really come from Joel’s comments. The anger comes from what both realize but are either unable or scared to communicate; that they’re maybe not the picture perfect storybook match they initially thought they were. Of course, storybook matches only exist in, well, storybooks.
Another thing Joel repeatedly does that irks Clem, something I think most of us can relate to, is use the fact that he considers his life to be unspectacular as an excuse for a lack of intimacy. He doesn’t like to talk about himself or how he feels because, as he says multiple times, “My life just isn’t that interesting”. The script positions Clem as an escape from the cyclical nature of Joel’s life. She quickly becomes not just part of his life but the most important thing in his life. So when he says his life isn’t that interesting it, unintentionally, comes off as a slight towards Clem. In fact, nothing Joel or Clem say/do that leads to their breakup is really intentional. That’s how most non-violent, non-adulterous relationships end (I think?).
The film ends on a reasonably happy note considering how depressing it plays at times (I won’t go into any more concrete plot detail in case you haven’t seen it). It’s clear that both Joel and Clem never would’ve undergone the memory erasure if they had a second chance. They make substantial efforts inside Joel’s memories to stop the process, and they both certainly would agree with Tennyson if given the gift of hindsight. These memories are an integral part of who they are. The loose sci-fi story emphasizes that by having the two experience brief moments of remembrance even after they’ve undergone the procedure. It’s not grounded in any real science, but who cares? The film correctly argues that memories of great strength, be they good or bad, are a part of you, and you’re better for it even if you don’t consciously realize so amidst the heartache.
On a purely aesthetic level, the film is something to marvel at. Gondry uses the erasing of memories as an excuse to pull some neat visual tricks. Things disappear and the transitions are trippy (childish diction, I know). DoP Ellen Kuras lights and lens the scenes in a neat way that puts a lot of literal darkness around the characters.
Carrey turns in the best performance of his career. His turn, along with his work in The Truman Show, adds another notch to his “I’m a serious actor and should respected as such” belt. The always outstanding Kate Winslet is at her most unrestrained here, and the supporting players all create real characters despite limited material to chew on.
Perhaps what scares me most about Eternal Sunshine is how close to it I feel despite being just 24 years of age and never having been in a serious, lengthy relationship to the extent of these characters. I can’t begin to imagine how hard this film would hit someone who’s recently undergone a breakup, a divorce, or a death in the family. But that’s the mind of Charlie Kaufman for you. He’s always finding unorthodox ways to tell very personal stories that still manage to be relatable to anyone who tends to deliberately think about why people feel the way the way they do.
Eternal Sunshine is one of those films whose value can’t be fully comprehended during its 108-minute runtime on first viewing. It is what it makes you notice about your own life and relationships, specifically the sad stuff. I both envy and pity anyone who’s never had their heart broken. Experiencing such creates a weary yet learnéd emotional compass with which one navigates future relationships. That’s not to say that heartache leads to cynicism. Heartache leads to a better understanding of human communication, the most integral part of the human condition, and so does Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.