Film Review: Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind

Ioana Manea, Second Year PPE, contemplates the concepts of love and memory portrayed in ‘Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind’

“Blessed are the forgetful: for they get the better even of their blunders.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, stated by Mary (Kirsten Dunst)

As I sat down with a large cup of coffee and my laptop in front of me and thought about this movie, I aimed to describe it using a certain number of cinematographic elements: genre, relevant moments, costumes, memorable dialogue. All, however, were foggy. The movie is self-erasing, but in a good way.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a tribute to the brittleness of human consciousness and emotion and its highest form of praising is exactly this amnesiac aura surrounding the story. After the movie ends, you forget what happened, what the characters fought about, where they met, or what they said to each other. For days, however, you’re left clinging to a certain diffuse bitterness: an unsettling feeling of nostalgia.

Kaufman and Gondry’s film is to be defined through some features unrelated to genre, costumes, or dialogue; it’s defined through the questions it proposes and tackles. The unique poignancy and force of this movie ultimately lie in questions with inescapable and painful answers left unsaid. Can we ever start again? Should we live in the present and forget that whatever we have is temporary or even doomed to fail? Can we forget and move on? Should we forget? Concepts like love, heartbreak and suffering are coupled with a bunch of heavy Nietzschean themes: the importance of forgetting, having an affirmative attitude towards life, and eternal recurrence. This seems to make up the recipe for an instant film crush.

The two protagonists are dealing with worries, feelings and questions we concern ourselves with in very repressed ways. These include an attraction to fatality. A concern with the mysticism of melancholia. Complicit goosebumps at the resonant promise of a broken heart. A sentiment of tearful humanity. A need for closure. This is what binds us to the film and makes it a distinctively moving and forceful display of emotion.

It begins like a clear-cut rom-com, in classic Hollywood fashion. One cold winter morning, Joel (Jim Carrey) impulsively decides to take the train to the randomly chosen Montauk. On his way back, he meets Clementine (Kate Winslet), a goofy, talkative, and dazzling woman who won’t leave him alone. Soon, however, as Joel embarks on a romantic relationship with Clementine, we also embark on an intimately manic, completely non-cheesy romantic story told backwards. It becomes a deeply personal account of love, anger, pain, and confusion following the two characters who desperately cling to hollow hopes.

Even though their love is new, the lovers aren’t – we are taken a few days back to find that Joel and Clementine used to be together and that Clementine, after a fight, had Joel literally erased from her memory, using the services of Dr. Mierzwiak at Lacuna, Inc. To stop his suffering, Joel calls on Lacuna to have the same procedure done, and the rest of the movie pretty much takes place in his head as his memories of Clem are being eradicated.

As the memories recess farther back, feelings of loathe and bitterness are replaced with the blissful recollections from earlier stages of their relationship. He realises he doesn’t want to forget, but he cannot communicate his desire to stop the procedure since he’s actually asleep. In the meantime, an intertwined subplot tracks Mary’s drama: Mary is Dr. Mierzwiak’s receptionist and, the night of Joel’s operation, she gets together with the doctor only to later find out from his wife that the two had actually been involved in the past but she had the affair removed from her memory. Furious, Mary mails all the doctor’s former clients the proof of their procedures and recorded justifications by each client for having it done. The film’s apogee occurs when Clementine and Joel discover their tapes and listen to them in each other’s presence, deciding to let go of all the painful truths they’ve said and learned about each other and simply… give it another shot.

The end of a relationship is supposed to be about getting closure, not about brooding over the love lost: after all, serial monogamy is the way humans relate to the idea of romance, and cultivating the art of forgetting is an essential mechanism we must employ each time we end a relationship. Granted, though, moving on is hard – and the idea of selective memory erasure proposed by the film is an attractive one. Loving is so short, forgetting is so long, as the poet Pablo Neruda put it. It would certainly be better if we could just have someone who’s hurt us a lot completely eradicated from our brains, wouldn’t it? The movie says no, and so does Nietzsche. It’s true, according to Nietzsche, that forgetting is a vital experience:

Occasionally close the doors and windows of consciousness, remain insensitive to noise, and fight the underworld in our bodies to help each book or destroy each other, be silent, a little to clean slate in our consciousness so that there is again room for new things, and in particular for the functions and noblest servants, to govern, to anticipate, to sense (because our body is a true oligarchy). Here, again, the role of the active faculty of forgetfulness, a kind of guardian, a supervisor responsible for maintaining the psychic, tranquility label. We immediately conclude that no happiness, no serenity, no hope, no pride, no enjoyment of the present moment could not exist without the possibility of forgetting.

(Genealogy of Morals)

This conception of forgetfulness, however, is better understood if looked at in juxtaposition to another Nietzschean passage from his Untimely Meditation on The Use and Abuse of History for Life:

Consider the cattle, grazing as they pass you by. They do not know what is meant by yesterday or today, they leap about, eat, rest, digest, leap about again, and so from morn till night and from day to day, fettered to the moment and its pleasure or displeasure, and thus neither melancholy nor bored. […] A human being may well ask an animal: ‘Why do you not speak to me of your happiness but only stand and gaze at me?’ The animal would like to answer, and say, ‘The reason is I always forget what I was going to say’ – but then he forgot this answer too, and stayed silent.

Here, Nietzsche reflects on forgetfulness in a more cautious manner, attributing perfect obliviousness to inferior creatures, like the cattle, who cannot ever truly be happy because they lack the complexity to enjoy the goods of life. His uniquely active, positive perspective on engaging in forgetfulness does not deny that forgetfulness is unaccommodating at times – a lot of times, in many prosaic circumstances, really.

In the same way Kaufman’s film does, Nietzsche pleads against oblivion, arguing for the importance of both forgetting and remembering. Remembering every detail of our lives would drive us insane and therefore forgetting is important, but we must be able to remember in the sense of embracing our past in order to build our best, strongest self; in our mission to become and our quest for inner peace we are shaped by our suffering and bad experiences. Espousing a life of coping with negativity is authentic, and by having the memory-erasure performed, Joel and Clem are headed down the path of inauthenticity. Their pressing forward in spite of learning from the past is a superb representation of Nietzsche’s idea of an affirmative attitude towards life and that of living in the present.

Of course, there’s an argument to be made about whether or not the mere discovery of past pains can count as embracing those past pains. Joel and Clementine aren’t accepting negative experiences, because they don’t feel in any way about them- they have no recollection of them at all; so when they decide to go on with their relationship, they haven’t accepted the negative experiences in themselves, but rather the idea of those experiences. What’s most valuable in the two characters, then, is not this ability to both forget and embrace the past, but their amor fati (love of faith): their affirmation of life. Is their relationship doomed to fail again? Most likely, yes. But they choose to enjoy it anyway. With that flat, geeky yet resonant “Okay” Joel speaks at the end of the movie, he’s pretty much paraphrasing Nietzsche’s “yes” to life. Saying yes to the good also means saying yes to the bad (just like erasing the bad memories also means erasing the good ones), which Clementine and Joel also choose to realise. In Nietzschean philosophy, the present good is to be appreciated, regardless of the transient future, and Eternal Sunshine showcases this logic throughout and explicitly via scenes like the one when Clem says to Joel: “This it, Joel. I’m going to be gone soon. What do we do now?”, to which he replies “Enjoy it!”.

The film itself is an echo of Nietzsche’s famous idea of eternal recurrence: even though the ending is open, the willful repetition of Joel and Clementine’s cycle is forecasted by Mary and Dr. Mierzwiak’s relationship. Just like Kaufman, Nietzsche envisioned no way out of the traps set for us by the nature of the universe and by our own limitations. The key, he argued, was transforming the trap from within, by affirming and loving our fate, and even wanting it forever: what was and is repeated into all eternity, shouting insatiably da capo. Eternal recurrence, as a practical response to the knowledge that life is inevitably bound by its own character and that we have nowhere else to go, is exactly the sort of liberty the characters of Joel and Clementine are engaged in.

There’s an excess of surreality, a Lewis Carroll waywardness, that helps reconstruct and deconstruct Joel’s memory. When he thinks of him and Clem on the beach while he’s lying in bed, a bed appears on the beach. The film is directed with a lot of nuance and wisdom and the writing is witty, bitter, lightweight and dramatic all at the same time. It feels like there’s an intricate and inexorable connection between the idea behind the film and the cinematic techniques building it – as if the writer and the director were plugged into the same dream machine and it spilled their shared hallucination straight onto the screen. It is solid from start to finish.

This is not your regular dream-like setting: instead of using a range of lurid colours, absurdist landscapes, and exaggerated vividness, Joel’s journey into the unconscious baffles exactly through its striking lack of stylisation. It is cinematically vague to the point of no return, in each element. If anything, it’s documentary-like craziness is given away only by the actual events taking place and, perhaps, by the cold, yet wildly attractive colour palette matching Clementine’s cold, yet wildly attractive hair.

Hazy scenes filmed in dimly lit rooms filled with smoke, underplayed fading memories, an undermined realism in the form of a tough real time scheme, unremarkable, self-erasing dialogue, generic conflicts, a certain reassuring pettiness to the ephemerality of Joel and Clementine’s relationship, a playful eccentric-guarded antithesis between the contrast to the actors’ real life personalities, the secondary, but funny casting (Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood), and an exhilarating delicacy backed by a large dose of mysterious tragism. These elements, while seemingly unimportant, speak volumes about the evocative power of the movie.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind provokes an intense, yet terribly unspecific emotional response in a way no other movie does. Whether that intangibility in a film is a quality or not remains debatable, but one thing is certain: its tranquil sagacity and complexity go beyond what can be described in a brief review like this one, and the evaporating trademark of this movie is definitely worth looking into for oneself.


  1. Nietzsche, F. Untimely Meditations (1876)
  2. Nietzsche, F. Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883)
  3. Nietzsche, F. Genealogy of Morals (1887)

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Film Review: Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind’ is a part of our new running series of film reviews, published exclusively online ahead of print publication. Follow our blog today to be the first to hear about and to access new instalments!

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