What if you could have all memory of a person erased from your mind? It sounds like a gimmicky premise for a movie, but Eternal Sunshine is not one ounce gimmick. What it is instead is a pure and beautiful artistry, an intricately woven story communicated brilliantly in bright, dancing color. The movie winds its way backwards through a two year relationship, stopping frequently for side diversions and running commentary. In the end, everything makes sense.
Blinded by the pain of a messy breakup, Joel (Jim Carrey) chooses to have all memory of his ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet), erased. But as the technicians work backwards, zapping each memory in turn, Joel realizes that what he is losing is an essential part of himself, and that the wonder and beauty and bliss of the good times far outweigh the pain of the bad times. Joel tries mightily to savor and save every memory, and is devastated as his world is literally blasted apart around him. He knows that when he awakes in the morning, all memory of his beloved will be gone forever.
Thoughts and emotions swirl on the screen, dancing back and forth in a feast for the eyes. Memories blur and disappear, items and people flash out of existence at the periphery of your vision, and all along the story builds on itself and builds on itself so that finally, in the end, and the beginning, everything falls into place and all becomes clear in one flash. We are accompanied on our ride by an ever-present soundtrack of life, music rising and falling as if directly connected to Joel’s experiences. And we come to realize, by the end, just what Joel has lost.
If you’ve experienced love in your lifetime, then you will feel a deep connection to Joel’s plight. Love is fraught with danger, and yet it is so pure, so powerful, so defiant of logic and rationality that one is caught up in its flow and ebb, savoring every moment of bliss. But love so frequently goes bad, relationships fail, and every bad moment seems to blot out a hundred good ones, to a point where we can lose sight completely of what it is we had. For Joel, the process is literal, and he sees each precious moment slip away, one by one, while he stands by powerless to stop it. In a desperate attempt to preserve Clementine, Joel flees into the recesses of his mind and attempts to hide her away among unrelated memories, only to see them zapped away one by one. But is Clem really gone, or does her spirit live on in how she touched and changed Joel?
Eternal Sunshine is the antithesis of preachy, but messages abound about the nature of relationships and life. I found in the film many ideas that called out to me as being true and made me think about my own decisions and experiences. This is one of those movies that cannot be comprehended until it all comes together. You must let it flow around you and only attempt to understand it once all of the pieces are in place. Watching it a second time makes many subtleties clear.
Joel and Clem do not appear, at first glance, to be compatible. He is an introverted and quiet thinker, she is a loud and outgoing doer. But in life, love often makes no sense. And one thing this film does very well is to feel real, and to not feel like a traditional movie. The dialogue feels real, the characters’ actions — as over-the-top as they sometimes are — feel authentic. This is life, the movie seems to be saying, this is complicated, confusing, bright, bash-you-over-the-head life. Enjoy it.