In Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, character Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) says, “What a loss to spend that much time with someone, only to find out that she's a stranger.”
In the context of a relationship, Joel’s comment makes perfect sense; too often do we fall in love, only to wake up weeks, months, or even years later, cursing the confusion, mystery, and resentment we have towards the person lying next to us. We spend our days imagining the various possibilities—a new lover, a rekindled flame—or perhaps even our current partner, rewound into the same person we fell in love with so long ago. Consistency is the one thing we swear we resist, yet somehow desire like a drink of cool water. Cognitive consistency theory says it best: "1. People expect consistency. 2. Inconsistencies create a state of dissonance. 3. Dissonance drives us to restore consistency."
Rather than accepting the natural act of human change, we deny and fight each other for failing to meet one another’s expectations, and thus the cycle continues with the next pair of lovers.
In Eternal Sunshine, however, the cycle repeats itself, not with a new pair of lovers, but with a man and a woman who no longer remember their past relationship. Joel and Clementine (Kate Winslet) are the perfect rom-com couple—polar opposite personalities and enough insecurities to fuel their fights for years—yet this classic tale of “you never know what you have until it’s gone” pairs this realization with a startling truth: What would our lives be like if we lost all our memories of the ones we have loved?
Clementine recognizes part of this truth, as she understands that being “a fucked up girl… looking for a piece of mind” does not complement Joel’s “pathetic, wimpy, apologetic smile.” After undergoing a memory erasure procedure, she frees herself from their romantic past, leaving Joel to follow suit. Joel unfortunately discovers that cleaning out the memory closet is more than just a daunting task—it completely changes who he is.
Joel first finds out about Clementine’s lapse of memory when he tries to deliver a gift to her while she’s at work. She does not recognize him, and instead interacts intimately with another man. Joel immediately goes home, wondering “why would she do this to me?”, and thinking of ways to win her back. It isn’t until he is given the slip of paper from Lacuna that he begins to understand the memory erasure procedure; that Clementine made a conscious decision to purge all of her memories involving Joel.
Furious and confused, Joel does what any normal person would do—agrees to have Clementine erased from his mind, too. In these moments, though, are when we realize the implications that follow such a task. As Joel wades through his past memories of Clementine, he is vulnerable to the love that they had shared. The narrative flashes between spaces of trust, intimacy, and familiarity, and although Joel is asleep throughout the entire procedure, he finds himself falling for Clementine once again.
What is perhaps most interesting within these moments is Joel’s reaction to the memory erasure. As dream-Joel follows dream-Clementine down the street in his car, he yells after her: “I’m erasing you and I’m happy. You did this to me first! I can’t believe you did this to me!” His response to the erasure is not only self-reassuring (because how happy is Joel, really, as he loses all control and falls back into love with his virtual dream of a girlfriend), but also self-serving and somewhat selfish. Throughout the film, Joel often comments on how the situation is Clementine’s fault: “You did this to me first,” “I can’t believe you did this to me,” “Why did she do this to me?”, and the list goes on. What Joel doesn’t consider, however, is Clementine herself.
Despite knowing what Clementine has done, Joel often forgets to ask what might have driven Clementine to such a drastic place in their relationship. Why was she so unhappy that she had to resort to memory erasure to free herself? What did she have to gain from losing her memory of Joel? Did she struggle with the decision at all, or was her mind completely made up when she laid down and fell asleep, knowing that when she woke up, all thoughts of him would be gone? The struggle between Joel and Clementine is not one of isolation. Every day, human beings wake up and deal with the repercussions of failed relationships, unhappy lifestyles, or traumatic memories. What makes us any different than Joel and Clementine?
Despite Eternal Sunshine’s release over ten years ago, it has only been within the past two years that conversations between psychologists discussing the process of memory erasure have steadily increased. Last year, the American Psychological Association claimed that “one intractable and unwelcome memory [could] influence a lifetime of perceptions, emotions and behavior, despite therapists' best efforts.” The article, entitled “Erasing bad memories,” discusses how scientists are right on the brink of introducing similar erasure technologies so we, too, can rid ourselves of unwanted memories. We, too, can be just like Joel and Clementine.
When we think of freeing ourselves from past memories, though, I’m not sure if we consider exactly how the past shapes us into our present and future selves. It seems simple enough: fall asleep, then wake up renewed. But at what point do we contemplate what the past has done for us? Do we think about the ways in which past memories influence our current state of self and how, despite scientists claiming memories are nothing more than chemical brain reactions, what we have learned through surviving those prior experiences?
Joel and Clementine might have erased their minds once, but they meet again. They meet again, and they fall in love with the same amount of fervor and passion that they had the first time—only now, Clementine must be assured that a second chance guarantees a different destination in which Joel can only answer with an “okay.” Just like the procedure itself, our memories and our futures only promise uncertainty—but we love consistency. Or do we?
Every time I watch this film, I wonder what it must have felt like when both Joel and Clementine realized they had erased their memories of each other: first, in the car, when Clementine shoves the cassette tape into the deck and Joel swears she is “screwing with [him],” and again when Clementine visits Joel’s apartment and hears him curse her free-spirited personality and rainbow-colored hair styles. And then again, not just how Joel erased Clementine and Clementine erased Joel, but beyond that—how Joel made the decision to alter his own state of mind, yet has no recollection of doing so. How does a relationship even recover from that? How can two people fully understand that only months ago, neither one wanted anything to do with the other, so they agreed to a procedure that would completely transform their lives? I arrive at the same answer every time: it doesn’t recover and they cannot understand.
Eternal Sunshine is ideal because, like most romance movies, it feels good. Despite its artistic cinematography, unconventional dialogue, and unpredictable narrative, it’s still “one of those endings”; a film that reminds us of how important our relationships are to the construction of the self, as well as a film that explores just how messy our lives can get if we try to remove the past, rather than rectify it.