—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.
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.
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.
Dawson Casting: This kind of story would conventionally employ leads in their early to mid twenties. Winslet was nearly 30 when the movie was made, and Carrey was over 40. Rather than intentionally subverting age stereotypes, the movie seems to hope you just don't notice.
The "alternate script" mentioned under Word of God below suggests that at some point the production might have contemplated following these characters across a longer span of time, and further into the Cynical end of the spectrum.
Also, Joel specifically points out how Clementine is now dating a 'young guy' (Patrick). So the movie very much acknowledges that both leads are older, and their characters may very well be in their thirties.
Dead Person Impersonation: A variant - Patrick uses materials Joel dumped off (including lines Joel said and gifts bought but never given) to woo Clementine - while the original person isn't dead, the memories are, and Patrick attempts to use that to his advantage. This clearly creeps Clem out - it's one of the hints that Clem may have also resisted the procedure in the end.
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 the fight, then they fall in love. We see it in that order, but really it's the reverse order as they fell out of love.
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*
Kick the Dog: Deleted scenes reveal that not only did Howard convince Mary to erase her memories of their relationship, he also had her get an abortion earlier.
Not just deleted scenes. It's very brief, but in the portion of Mary's tape that we hear in the unextended version, Howard says "remember, we agreed. This is the best way." The implication is already there that he was clearly pressuring her into going through with the memory wipe.
This being after he specifically told her earlier that she had personally wanted the procedure.
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.
It also subverts a common element of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, in that it is 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.
Ms. Fanservice: Kate Winslet and Kirsten Dunst get many nice underwear shots.
Never Heard That One Before: One of the first things Clementine asks Joel not to do is make jokes about her name. He immediately starts singing "Oh My Darlin', Clementine".
Inverted in the beginning actually after the procedure was completed where Joel has no memory of the song since it was deleted as part of the process of removing all traces of Clem from his memory. Clementine ends up reciting the whole thing herself.
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.
From the supporting supporting roles, Elijah Wood plays a shallow douchebag.
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: Joel manages 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.
Knowing Clementine, she has been going to Montauk every day in an effort to recreate the first meeting, which goes some way to explaining why a lot of "present day" Clem behaviour is filled with Wangst: each time he doesn't show up it drives her crazy, but because of the procedure she can't quite say why, especially not to Patrick... babyboy.
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.
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.
Throw It In: A scene length one. While filming in downtown Manhattan, they heard that there was a circus parade going on outside. Gondry grabbed a portable camera, and got some footage of Carrey and Winslet messing around in the crowd completely anonymous due to it being night time and since the actors were wearing winter gear. The result is one of the happier memories in the movie.
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. Other less obvious hints abound (e.g. Joel remembering childhood events while being adult in appearance). 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.
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.
Word of God: In an alternative script there's an extra ending, where an older Clem goes back to Lacuna to erase Joel again, and an older Mary reveals to her that Clem and Joel have been erasing and re-erasing each other for years, always ending up back together.
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.
Also, 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 likely would have renewed the affair if his wife hadn't caught them kissing in Joel's house. This takes on an even darker tone in the extended scene of her memory tape, which reveals that one of the memories suppressed was of an abortion she had been pressured into.
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. There's probably a special hell for that.