It’s 2008. April-ish. Manchester. My girlfriend of 18 months and I have just broken up. The first really serious, vaguely grown-up relationship, the one that makes you understand why people put themselves through all of that stuff. It's been on its way for a while, but the plug was finally pulled in a phone call, one that we both cry our way through. Eventually, we hang up. I could get on with this new life, or I could drink myself into warm, nauseous oblivion until I don’t feel the absence anymore. Behind me, on the wall (tatty, faded, and with the top-left corner hanging off, because I haven’t yet taken that step into the crucial and significant part of adulthood where you stop using Blu-Tack and start framing your shit), is a poster for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”
“Technically, the procedure is brain damage. But it’s on a par with a night of heavy drinking. Nothing you’ll miss.” - Dr. Mierzwiak
Ten years ago tomorrow, on March 19th, 2004, Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” was released in the United States. Which means that I need to find a new answer to the question, “What’s your favorite film of the last ten years?” Over time and countless subsequent rewatches, it grew with me, or more accurately I grew with it, but it’s now almost impossible to separate the film’s own virtues for the way it entwined itself in my life in the years to follow. Like many movie obsessives, cinema irrevocably changed/ruined my romantic existence (going through a major “High Fidelity”-induced wanting-to-be-John-Cusack period as you hit adolescence will do that). But 'Eternal Sunshine' is probably alone among the films that shaped my love life by doing it for the better. Eventually, anyway.
As with so many films that fit under the romantic comedy banner (though Gondry rejects the label), it begins with a meet-cute. Joel (Jim Carrey) is depressed and skips work to head to the windswept beach in Montauk. In a diner, he meets the bright-haired Clementine (Kate Winslet), who he saw on the beach. He’s taciturn and insular, she’s needy and a touch abrasive. Somehow—a lack of other options, perhaps?—they’re drawn to each other, and he heads back to hers for an abortive, but faintly promising nightcap (“Drink up. It’ll make the whole seduction part less repulsive,” she half-jokes). The next day, they head out to the frozen-over Charles River that Joel will later describe as “the best fucking night of my entire fucking life.” Suddenly, a hard cut to Carrey, sobbing in his car. We assume that we’re seeing the start and end of the relationship, but we’ll eventually get that the opening scenes are Joel and Clementine’s second first-date.
Over the rest of the first act, Kaufman and Gondry then set up their conceit: the two-year relationship between the couple has imploded, and Clementine has used a company called Lacuna to have every one of her memories of Joel removed. Joel has agreed to the same procedure, and as his memories unspool backwards, we see the final explosive break-up, and the wretched moments that led to it. One of the things that makes the film work in a way that their first collaboration, “Human Nature,” and many of Gondry’s subsequent pictures, never did, is that there’s a basic emotional grounding to Joel and Clementine. The film’s conceit of walking through memories lets Gondry let loose his visual imagination, but no one’s dreaming of stop-motion chairlifts, or playing pianos that are also machines that make cocktails—the trickery is driven by story and character. That leaves the most emotional scenes with their own room to breathe, and they’re legitimately painful to watch—silent meals in restaurants, arguments blowing up from nothing, his self-pitying passive aggression pitted against her blow-it-all-up provocations.
"Are we like those bored couples you feel sorry for in restaurants? Are we the dining dead?” - Joel
The film hit the U.K. about six weeks after the U.S., so I assume I saw it early that May. It was the Odeon Swiss Cottage, I think, on a date with my first girlfriend. It wasn’t a great choice. We were a few months in, and what had initially been the breathless excitement of two best friends working out they had feelings for each other had already started to dissipate. The train ride home felt doubly silent as a result—we’d exposed an open nerve, and neither of us wanted to prod any further. We hung on for another couple of months, probably because we had exams and neither of us wanted the distraction of the break-up. Our friends only realized it had ended when we slept in separate tents at a Scottish music festival (in my experience, booking tickets for a festival with a significant other is invariably followed by the two of us breaking up, then grinning and bearing it through three miserable days of mud and questionable indie-rock). It felt like heartbreak at the time though it probably wasn’t, but the sourness of that train journey lingered, so while I’d been fascinated by the film in and of itself, it was a long time before I returned to it.
Alongside Joel and Clementine’s story, Kaufman also lays out a Chekhovian spidergram of subplots of people in love with the wrong people. In particular, technician Stan (Mark Ruffalo) loves receptionist Mary (Kirsten Dunst), and Mary worships the ground that Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), the inventor of the process, walks on. As he turns up to fix the malfunctioning equipment, she makes a move, induced by too much drink and weed. Except that, in a canny twist, it turns out she made a move long before—they had an affair, which she’s had the memory of erased (only semi-willingly, it seems: “We agreed it was for the best,” she hears the doctor say when she finds the tape of the wiping).
And yet the latent feelings were still there—the memories were gone, but the attraction wasn't. Thinking that she could be rid of the memories, and him free of the chance of being found out, looked like it’d solve all their problems, but instead, she’s left with all of the pain but none of the happy memories. She asks Stan if he knew, and he replies that he only suspected once, glimpsing her laughing with Dr. Mierzwiak after work. “How did I look?” she asks. “Happy,” he replies. “Happy with a secret.”
“Constantly talking isn’t necessarily communicating” - Joel
The second time I saw the film, it was November of 2005. I’d seen her across a room, stealing mince pies from a Christmas party, and I was immediately a goner. Later, spectacularly drunk on the possibility of her (and quite a lot of snakebite), I kissed her. We texted tentatively over the break, before completely failing to get together in the months that followed—it emerged much later that we each considered ourselves to be in love with the other, but being 18 and figuring that you have the rest of your lives, no one really thought to say anything about it. Finally, the following Halloween, we finally got our shit together and started seeing each other secretly. And so it was that we were round a friends’ house, watching 'Eternal Sunshine' and eating ice cream.
We walked home together, and kissed as soon as we got clear of line-of-sight of the house, two hours and eleven months of tension bursting out. She tasted of the vanilla of her ice cream and the cinnamon of her lip gloss and it was pretty much the high point of my life up to that point. Within a few weeks, it was done. Having wanted it so for long, I took it for granted as soon as it was there, and we still weren’t great communicators. I wanted her in my life, and vice versa, but in those initial weeks and months of readjusting, I saw for the first time the appeal of ridding yourself of your memories of a relationship.
I watched the film again more than once around this time, and the catharsis of those early scenes was helpful. The film is in so many ways one about grief and loss (when Joel arrives at Lacuna, there are two others in the waiting room—one an inconsolable owner of a dead pet, the other carrying a box with sporting trophies that presumably belonged to a child). But Kaufman and Gondry are clear that deleting the memories isn’t enough, because you have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. As we move back through Joel’s memories, towards the beginning of the relationship, they grow more and more idyllic. A tender moment under a duvet, and their first time on the Charles River ice make him change his mind—the idea of losing the recollections of their happiest time together breaks his heart all over again, and so he flees with his memory of Clementine into the darkest recesses of his mind. It’s the film’s first and most obvious turnaround—ultimately, no one would really want to go through the Lacuna process, because no matter how badly you wish you hadn’t met someone, you wouldn’t want to part with the best of the memories.