Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind represents an elusive oddity within cinema- the science fiction romance. Written by the ever thoughtful Charlie Kaufman– decidedly one of our generation’s strongest and most imaginary screenwriters- Spotless Mind is a melancholy and often humorous ode to the inevitable heartaches associated with breakup. The film operates as a kind of pre-Black Mirror cautionary tale (though admittedly more tender than sadistic), gradually revealing a world where an experimental brain operation can permanently erase a person’s memories of an individual- obviously a useful avenue for anyone distraught by the pains of losing a romantic partner.
In one of his earlier dramatic roles, Jim Carrey plays Joel, a sheepish man who wakes up one morning in a confused, almost hungover haze. He impulsively boards a train and meets a young woman named Clementine (Kate Winslet). The two are strangely drawn to one another, and through the film’s nonlinear narrative, we come to realize that Clementine and Joel were a previously an unhappy couple who resorted to erasing one another from their memories. Half of the film’s remaining runtime transpires within Joel’s mind as he undergoes the erasure procedure, revealing his relationship with Clementine through an increasingly surreal dream state. The other half follows the energetically youthful employees conducting Joel’s procedure- Mary (a young Kirsten Dunst), Stan (Mark Ruffalo), and Patrick (Elijah Wood)- three people each affected in their own distinct ways by the existence of such a procedure. Through these two interweaving narrative strands, Kaufman’s story creatively explores and even satirizes the ethical and emotional implications of his science fiction premise. The result is a deeply heartfelt reflection on relationships and breakups whose somber atmosphere lingers on the mind long after the credits conclude.
Though he is supposed to be completely unconscious during the procedure, Joel finds himself in the unbearably tortuous position of remembering Clementine through his dreams, forced to watch his memories of her, both tender and unpleasant, fade permanently out of existence. He finds himself conversing with his subconscious projection of Clementine, painfully coming to terms with what he loved and hated about her, and futilely trying to stop the process. It doesn’t take very long into the process for Joel to grasp the disturbing permanence of expunging Clementine from his memories- this isn’t just an angry way to “get back” at her, but a literal deletion of everything she meant to him.
In the film’s melancholy third act, Kaufman introduces a striking social commentary about the invaluable necessity of experience and the perpetual cycle of interrelational unhappiness. In both Clementine and Joel’s relationship and Mary’s previous affair with her boss (Tom Wilkinson as Dr. Howard Mierzwiak), there’s a sense of inevitable repetition. When one chooses to forgo the hindsight of past experience, Kaufman suggests, one is doomed to make the same mistake again. Electing to “try again” and hope for a different outcome is the definition of insanity, yet it’s exactly what Joel and Clementine choose to do. Kaufman’s shrewd understanding of relationships displayed in the final shot offers a rather cynical outlook (especially for a romantic comedy), ostensibly suggesting that the only way Joel and Clementine will ever find happiness is by repeating their toxic relationship over and over again.
Despite its bleak message, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a thoroughly enjoyable film with two especially charismatic leads in Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet. It’s perhaps Charlie Kaufman’s most accessible work to date, and remains a quietly surreal and poignant odyssey through the human idea of a relationship. The film represents an unexplored pinnacle of what science fiction cinema can do, exhibiting its unique capacity to explore the human experience through relatively implausible scenarios. It’s truly a shame that there aren’t more science fiction romances, because if nothing else Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind proves their union can be an intoxicating concoction.