Love is a mess of paradoxes in ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’

Saturday, October 17, 2020 - 12:15pm

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Focus Features

“Oh, my darling, Clementine. You were lost and gone forever. Dreadful sorry, Clementine.” 

So croons Joel’s (Jim Carrey, “Dumb and Dumber”) mother as she bathes him in his distant memory of infancy in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” It’s strange to think how you could know someone’s name from a song before you ever meet them. 

Of course, this is not not actually a coincidence; screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (“I’m Thinking of Ending Things”) chose this lullaby specifically to fit the narrative of his movie, but it’s not that far-fetched. We sometimes make up parallels in our lives with our loved ones even if they don’t make sense. Like Phoebe Bridgers wrote, “I didn’t know you then / And I’ll never understand why / It feels like I did.” 

“Eternal Sunshine” begins with Joel meeting Clementine (Kate Winslet, “Titanic”) on an impulsive day trip to Montauk. Joel is enamoured by Clementine’s boldness — the way that she invites him, a stranger, into the intimacy of her life and apartment. After spending a night together, the film abruptly cuts to what we’ll eventually realize is a flashback to when Clementine and Joel broke up, shortly before the opening of the film. Clementine went to a special medical clinic to have her memory of Joel erased from her brain, and, upon discovering this, Joel does the same to his memory of Clementine. The film follows Joel as he regrets trying to erase her, and they both eventually realize that even with all of their baggage, they’re willing to give their relationship one more shot. 

Even the mind-bending science-fiction angle of the film feels like something grounded in reality — who hasn’t ever wished they could, like Joel and Clementine, be strapped to an examination table and have your heartbreak surgically removed? 

The most painful moment for Joel wasn’t just the sight of Clementine walking out his door, but the moment when she acts like she has never (because, in her current consciousness, she hasn’t) met him before. It’s a science-fiction version of the universal fear that you can spend so much time in love with someone only to end up as strangers. That’s the paradox that really matters, not the non-linear storytelling that begins the day after Joel has already had his memory erased. With no memory of Clementine, he meets his ex-girlfriend as if they are strangers, leaving a disconnect between their bodies and minds. After two years of love, they erase each other through a procedure that takes about as long as it might take you to finally block your ex’s number.

If the sentimentality doesn’t get you, the cinematography will. There are great visual paradoxes when Clementine walks down a street only to appear to return right where she began, like an urban Penrose staircase, or the Eldritchian version of Patrick (Elijah Wood, “Wilfred”), the man using knowledge of Joel’s memories to seduce Clementine, in a comatose nightmare sequence where, no matter how many times Joel turns him around, he never sees his face. 

But Kaufman’s portrayal of these inherent contradictions of the human condition isn’t just about the body horror of these faceless creatures in Joel’s dreams — it’s the way that Joel and Clementine are cosmically magnetized to each other. Though they’ve forgotten about each other, they remain drawn to each other. Their bodies could not forget. Perhaps this is because Mark Ruffalo’s (“Spotlight”) character fucked up the science, or maybe it means that we can’t ever really forget people as much as we want to, no matter how much we shill out for an experimental psychological study. 

Kaufman has something to say about the repressed feelings we hold in our bodies, too. Sex is probably the most intimate thing you can do with someone second only to, I don’t know, dying in their arms. But, in Kaufman’s film, Clementine uses it as a conversation starter — not to express any meaningful or established feelings. The implication in Joel’s vitriolic “I assume you fucked someone tonight. Isn't that how you get people to like you?” is that she doesn’t have any depth to her personality, that she uses her body to get to know people. 

Avoiding the possibility of an argument about sex positivity, Kaufman uses this sequence to point out how weird it is that the bodies we’re in feel so separate from who we are inside our heads. Nearly the whole film is spent in Joel’s out-of-body experience during the procedure. Maybe Joel thinks (while Clementine denies that she’s at all promiscuous) that Clementine sees physical nakedness as less incriminating than emotional vulnerability, or maybe she sees her body and her mind connected in a way that Joel can’t. When her mind tells her body that she wants to eat off of Joel’s plate the first time they meet, she does. 

“It was so intimate,” Joel recalls about the bizarre moment. “Like we were already lovers.”

There’s a scene where Joel and Clementine venture out onto a frozen lake to lie down and stargaze. The frozen lake is revisited multiple times, even if the characters don’t realize it.

“What if it breaks?” Joel asks.

“‘What if?’ Do you really care right now?” Clementine says.

Is the ice going to crack? Is the view of the stars worth the risk of hypothermia? Is the love worth the heartbreak? It’s the paradox of loneliness when you know how much it hurts to be with someone who hurt you, but you still want it anyway; of knowing no one can force feelings of love but still hurting when they don’t love you back; of Valentine’s Day intending to be all about love, but ending up being about heartbreak; of everyone having the shared experience of childhood but somehow forgetting how lonely it is to be a kid when you finally grow up.

All we’re supposed to want is survival. We’re supposed to shave off anyone who might hold us back. But instead we go against all our instincts to protect ourselves when we choose to love someone, even with all their weaknesses laid out on the surgical table. Maybe love is the ultimate paradox.

Daily Arts Writer Mary Elizabeth Johnson can be reached at maryelzz@umich.edu 


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