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Film: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

"How happy is the blameless vestal's lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each prayer accepted, and each wish resigned."
Alexander Pope, "Eloisa to Abelard", as quoted by Mary Svevo.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a 2004 science fiction drama/comedy, directed by Michel Gondry, written by Charlie Kaufman and starring Jim Carrey in one of his more serious roles. The film primarily follows Joel Barish, a recently dumped man who discovers that his ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) has undergone a memory wiping procedure in order to forget their relationship together. In an act of spite, he opts to undergo the same procedure. What follows is a rather surreal journey through his memories, as he re-experiences their entire relationship. It doesn't take long for him to realize he'd rather not forget his connection...

The result is a wildly creative film that's both funny and poignant, to the point where it won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

The film does have some notable similarities to "Hearts Do Not in Eyes Shine," a short story by John Kessel published in 1983. The story centers around a couple who had their memories partially erased and follows a similar story progression.

This movie provides examples of:

  • Alternative Foreign Theme Song: A cover of The Bangles' "Eternal Flame" sung by LISA was used as the theme song in the Japanese version.
  • Amnesiac Lover:
    • Clementine, and later Joel as well.
    • Mary for Dr. Mierzwiak.
  • Anachronic Order: The film opens with Joel and Clementine meeting after having the procedure performed, though this isn't immediately apparent. A lot of the memories revisited during the erasure procedure are visited out of order, particularly when Joel starts fighting back in response; as a linear series of events, the good in Joel and Clementine's relationship is slowly extinguished and forgotten (providing the original motivation for the procedures in the first place).
  • And I Must Scream: It's not that the doctor won't stop... it's just that Joel can't tell him to. This especially applies when Joel "wills" himself conscious long enough to look at the assistants with desperation in his eyes (but cannot speak) as they drug him back to sleep.
  • Arc Words: "Meet me in Montauk".
  • Author Appeal: If Charlie Kaufman's previous movie is any indication, he has a personal fondness for the story of Abelard and Heloise. As seen in the page quote, Alexander Pope's poem about them ("Eloisa to Abelard") is the basis of this film's title.
  • Bastard Boyfriend: Patrick for Clementine, Howard for Mary.
  • Beta Couple: Mary and Dr. Mierzwiak.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Joel and Clem discover they wiped one another from their memories and, listening to their pre-wipe tapes, learn they ended up hating everything about each other. Despite this, and the fact that their relationship will probably end up in same, they decide to start over and try again.
  • The Blank: faces in partially-erased memories.
  • Brain Bleach: Deconstructed Trope through Lacuna Inc's memory wipe procedure: the film thoroughly explores the ramifications of the trope and whether one would even want to carry it out if it was available.
  • Break the Cutie: Mary is initially sweet, cheerful and lively, but becomes very depressed when she learns that she'd already had a relationship with Howard and had the memory erased at his insistence.
  • Break Up Make Up Scenario: Even Ross and Rachel didn't go through as many as Joel and Clem. Many of their memories show fights and reconciliations, till the end of the movie. One interpretation of the film, made explicit in an early draft of the screenplay, is that the two of them spend their entire lives getting together, breaking up, erasing each other and then getting back together again.
  • Caught with Your Pants Down: One of Joel's humiliating memories is his mother catching him masturbating to furry porn as a teen.
  • Contrived Coincidence: It's explained in the film why Joel decides to take the train to Montauk at the beginning of the film, having successfully implanted a subconscious to do so at the end of the erasure procedure. What's not explained is why Clementine is there, or how Joel knew to find her there. Chalk it up to Rule of Romantic.
  • Dead Person Impersonation: A variant — Patrick takes advantage of his job at Lacuna, Inc. to steal romantic lines and gifts from the materials that patients turn in when they erase someone from their memory, thus impersonating someone who is forgotten but not dead. (Interestingly, the strangeness of his target's emotional reactions to a few of these stolen moves suggest Clementine resisted the erasure of Joel, too.)
  • Dead Sparks: Where Joel and Clementine's first relationship ends (starts?).
  • Deconstruction: The film deconstructs the romantic comedy genre simply by showing the events of the weeks after Joel and Clementine fall in love. Even more than that, the Anachronic Order we see things in is the normal order of a Romantic Comedy — first fighting, then falling in love — when really these happened in reverse order as the two fell out of love.
  • Double Take: Clementine makes a one just after Patrick gives her a gift stolen from the items Joel turned in. See Dead Person Impersonation above.
  • Dude, She's Like in a Coma: Stan says this almost verbatim to Patrick after he tells him he stole a pair of Clem's panties. There's an awkward silence before they both break out laughing.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Joel and Clementine are back together. Will it work out this time, or will history just repeat itself? Neither one knows, but that's not going to stop them from trying.
  • Expository Hairstyle Change: Clementine's hair frequently changes throughout. As it turns out, the color helps indicate her relationship with Joel: it's green early in their relationship (and the first time they meet), orange during her relationship with Joel, and blue after her memory is wiped of Joel (and when they meet a second time).
  • Fond Memories That Could Have Been: A unique variation; when the wiping goes further back into Joel and Clem's relationship, Joel realizes how much he loved her and how happy they used to be. Since he's losing her forever by erasing his memories of her, he then tries to combat it.
    Joel: Mierzwiak, please let me keep this memory. Just this one.
  • Forbidden Chekhov's Gun: As his memories show, Joel has major anxiety with regards to confrontation and shame, and Clementine complains he never shares intimate thoughts with her. When Dr. Mierzwiak figures out Joel is hiding Clementine in irrelevant memories, however, Joel then has to overcome his fear of openness and hide her in his most intimate, shameful memories.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: Upon closer inspection, a lot can be inferred about Joel's relationship with Clementine from the objects he throws out to erase her. For instance, a love note she wrote to him reveals that they had sex on the ice after the scene where they lie down on the frozen Charles.
  • Genre-Busting: A science fiction romantic comedy-drama, most of which takes place inside the main character's head.
  • Hard-Drinking Party Girl: Clementine and Mary often get "amiably drunk" (the latter even smokes pot). Clem and Joel's breakup is prompted by her driving home from a party drunk and damaging Joel's car.
  • Hilarity Ensues: What happens when a man hides his girlfriend in his childhood memories.
    Clementine/Joel's childhood nanny: Okay, this is REALLY twisted.
  • Informed Attribute: At the end of the film, when the audience hears the tape of Joel explaining why he wants to erase Clementine, he lists off several of her perceived flaws (among others, her poor vocabulary, her lack of education and how she thinks she can only get people to like her by having sex with them or dangling the possibility in front of them), none of which Clementine is ever seen possessing. That being said, Clementine gets particularly defensive about the last point and asserts that it isn't the case, suggesting that Joel may be something of an Unreliable Narrator.
    • And when we hear Clementine's tape, the first thing she says about him is that he's "boring." By that point in the movie we've seen a number of scenes of the two of them having fun together. By the time each makes their tape, they're in the breakup phase, so they're probably exaggerating traits that may not have always bothered them or projecting their own insecurities on the other.
  • In Medias Res: When Joel is having the procedure, the movie jumps between key parts of his relationship with Clementine (as opposed to chronological order). Also used as a twist in that the movie opening, where Clem and Joel meet on a train, is actually for the second time after they've had each other wiped.
  • Ironic Echo: "I'll be sure to remember that." *memory erased*
  • It Makes Sense in Context: As with many Michel Gondry films, the film features a lot of bizarre, surreal imagery, but in this case it generally makes sense.
  • Kaleidoscope Hair: Clementine frequently re-dyes her hair.
  • Kick the Dog: One line in Mary's tape reveals that Mierzwiak pressured her into erasing her memory of their affair.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: Well, computer guided really...
  • Literary Allusion Title: The page quote, from Alexander Pope's "Eloisa to Abelard".
  • Lost Love Montage: Plot justified, with the memory-erasing procedure causing Joel to relive his memories of Clementine and realize why he fell in love with her in the first place. As part of the Deconstruction, some downright bitter memories appear as well.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Subverted and thoroughly deconstructed with Clementine. As a Deconstructed Character Archetype she shows what happens once the novelty of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl wears off and the meaning of the term becomes apparent. It also subverts a common element of the trope, in that it's usually inexplicable that the free-spirited girl would be so interested in the quiet, reserved guy. At the beginning of the movie it seems like Clementine is fascinated by Joel for no reason, but it's actually that her subconscious is influencing her with the forgotten remnants of her feelings for him when they were together. When we see their real first meeting, she is interested in him initially but quickly gets bored, forcing him to work to make a relationship happen.
    "Too many guys think I'm a concept, or I complete them, or I'm gonna make them alive. But I'm just a fucked-up girl who's lookin' for my own peace of mind; don't assign me yours."
  • Maybe Ever After: The ending.
  • May-December Romance: Mary and Dr. Mierzwiak were having an affair before Mary was pressured into having him erased from her memory.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Clementine — which means "merciful." "Oh my darlin' Clementine... You are lost and gone forever..." The fruit may have been part of what led them to make her dye her hair orange, and also informed Joel's nickname for her.
    • "Lacuna" is a gap, blank, or missing piece; in Italian, it also refers to a memory lapse.
  • Memory Wiping Crew
  • Mental Story: Roughly half of the film takes place inside Joel's head while his memory is being erased.
  • Mind Screw: The memory erasing procedure is this both for the characters and for the audience.
  • Modesty Bedsheet
  • Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness: Although there is little explanation given for how the memory-erasure device works, the story is remarkably faithful to the modern understanding of the neuroscience of memory in many of the details — putting it among the hardest class of SF stories.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Kate Winslet and Kirsten Dunst get many nice underwear shots.
  • Never Heard That One Before: Almost everyone Clementine meets sings "Oh My Darlin', Clementine" at her (often alluding to The Huckleberry Hound Show) — a joke that is inverted at the beginning, when Clementine learns to her discomfiture that Joel doesn't know the show or the song even when she sings it to him. We later learn that he had immediately associated Clementine with the song and with Huckleberry Hound at their (erased) first meeting, when he sang it at her right after she said not to joke about her name.
  • Nice Guy: Joel, albeit a little withdrawn both emotionally and romantically.
  • Once More with Clarity: The scenes of Joel meeting Clementine on Montauk at the beginning are repeated later, at which point it's clear that they're meeting for the second time, but neither one is aware of it. Even the sound of a van driving away outside as Joel wakes up turns out to be the Lacuna, Inc. van.
  • Opposites Attract: Played with, and perhaps deconstructed. The conflict between Clem's open and outgoing personality and Joel's comparatively withdrawn and introverted personality causes friction in their relationship and is one factor which leads to their breakup - he's boring, she's unpredictable and dangerously impulsive.
  • Perma Stubble: Joel sports a non-manly variation thereof.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Clementine and Joel respectively.
  • The Reveal:
    • Mary already had an affair with Dr. Mierzwiak before the film started, then opted to have her memory wiped of the ordeal. The fact that the film sets this up to happen again is in keeping with the theme that You Can't Fight Fate where love is concerned. (Or at the very least that you can't learn from something you don't remember.)
    • Not to mention that Joel and Clementine's "initial" meeting in Montauk is in fact the second time they've met. Probably qualifies as a First Episode Spoiler.
  • Screw Destiny: We learn when we finish seeing the memory erasure that Joel managed to implant the suggestion to go back to Montauk despite the memory rewrite — and Clementine's appearance on the same train suggests that she may have done the same.
  • Second Place Is for Losers: A Funny Background Event in the Lacuna offices has a client bringing with him a silver bowling trophy - evidently he found the memory of only coming in second in a bowling competition, rather than winning, too painful to bear.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The film's title is a quote from Alexander Pope's "Eloisa to Abelard", a passage from which Mary recites to Howard.
    • Mary also quotes Friedrich Nietzsche at one point.
  • Skyward Scream: When Joel starts reliving happy memories, and tries to call of the wipe.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: The movie itself is ambiguous (or at least balanced) on this, but it does seem to be fairly effective at revealing where viewers are on the scale.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: Hollis, Howard's wife, gets only two scenes, but drops the Wham Line specified below.
  • Third Person Flashback: Possible aversion as we see the movie as a third person memory of the protagonist's dreams. In real life he has no memory of his romantic rival's face because he didn't see it, so even though we see it in third person, no matter how he moves the guy he's always The Blank.
  • Title Drop: The page quote.
  • Tomato in the Mirror: Mary had a relationship with Dr. Mierzwiak. When his wife learned about his affair, Mierzwiak pushed Mary into getting him wiped from her memory.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: Averted in that a great deal of the promotional material involved pseudo-commercials for Dr. Mierzwiak's memory wipe clinic. Played straight, however, in that the entire premise involves the spoiler that Joel goes through with getting Clementine erased.
  • Transferable Memory: Averted.
    Joel: Is there any chance of... brain damage?
    Dr. Mierzwiak: Well, technically speaking, the procedure is brain damage.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Joel. A great portion of the film is told through Joel's memories of events he experienced with Clementine, but the unreliability of those memories is shown on at least two occasions.
    • When Joel first arrives home the night of the erasure, his neighbor chats with him about Valentine's Day. This is then the first substantial memory about Clementine that gets erased. But while this event took place just a short while (maybe an hour at most) before the erasure, it is shown that Joel is already incorrectly remembering what his neighbor said to him.
    • Taking the imperfection of human memory alongside whether Joel considered a given memory as enjoyable or upsetting, the audience ought to wonder if what they're viewing is what actually happened, or if Joel's memories are distorted, exaggerated, or embellished because of the passing of time and because of his emotional state at the time of the event. On several occasions, for example, Clementine often instigates arguments and acts like a bitch towards Joel; however, while she's the Hot-Blooded of the two, there's probably major bias since it's from Joel's perspective.
  • Wham Line:
    Hollis: Don't be a monster, Howard. Tell the poor girl. You can have him. You did.
  • Where Were You Last Night?: The last time Joel saw Clementine before she had him erased was when she stumbled in the door at 3 A.M. after drunkenly scraping his car against a fire hydrant. The fight coming from Joel's reaction was Clementine's impetus to the procedure.
  • Women Are Wiser: Inverted: as Clementine's Manic Pixie Dream Girl status is deconstructed, Joel goes from being simply Comically Serious to being the closer-to-Earth counter to Clementine's bare recklessness.
  • Word Salad Title: It's actually a Literary Allusion Title, but the average viewer probably wouldn't be aware of that.
  • You Can Run, but You Can't Hide: Verbatim. Stan says this the second time Joel tries to get away to save his memory of Clementine, implying that he wouldn't have stopped the procedure even if he had realized that Joel changed his mind.
  • You Can't Fight Fate:
    • Clementine and Joel show signs that they would have gotten back together even hadn't Mary opted to break the rules and mail them back all of the materials required for the procedure. In fact, Mary returning the tapes to them was what interrupted their getting back together again right after the memory wipe.
    • Mary ends up falling for Dr. Mierzwiak again despite getting a memory wipe to remove even any memory of why she'd fall for him in the first place. Mary is alarmed by this as Dr. Mierzwiak is a married man, and probably would have renewed the affair if his wife hadn't caught them kissing in Joel's house. Part of Mary's alarm (and fury) later may come from the fact that while she had the affair wiped from her memory, Dr. Mierzwiak quite clearly didn't — he wouldn't be able to tell her that they had a "history", otherwise. And he knew all the things that had made her fall in love with him the first time... and he may even have been doing the same thing as Patrick, playing on the forgotten memories to spark a relationship.


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alternative title(s): Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind
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