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Film / Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

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"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 comedy-drama film directed by Michel Gondry, written by Charlie Kaufman and starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet (the former in one of his more serious roles).

After his declining relationship ends in a serious argument, Joel Barish (Carrey) decides to make up with his now ex-girlfriend Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet). Finding she's changed her number, he desperately follows her to work; when she treats him like an average customer, he soon learns she dealt with the heartbreak by undergoing a memory-wiping procedure. Since Clem has cut him out of her life altogether, Joel meets with Lacuna Inc., the company that specializes in this procedure, and opts to undergo it himself in an act of spite.

What follows is a rather surreal journey through his memories, with Joel re-experiencing their entire relationship in reverse order as Lacuna backtracks through his memories to wipe them away in an interwoven, current-time B-plot. Of course, once Joel becomes consciously aware that he's reliving his fading memories (and those most recent bad memories are fading...), it doesn't take long for him to realize why he fell in love with Clementine in the first place, making him realize he'd rather not forget his connection even as he moves inexorably backwards through his memories towards erasing it completely...

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

Now has a character sheet that could use some growth.

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 with Patrick, who uses Joel's file to win her over. She gets progressively more disturbed the more he sounds like Joel. Joel himself borders into this as well when the remnants of his memory drive him back to her.
    • Mary for Dr. Mierzwiak. In the deleted scenes it's revealed he pressured her into aborting his baby.
  • Amnesiac Resonance: The reason why Joel and Clem meet again at Montauk. And again.. and again.
  • Amnesia Loop: Invoked. People keep getting into the same bad relationships over and over, then have their memories wiped off.
  • 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".
    • Joel's choice adjective is "nice". This crops up as a common conversation piece, as a plot point (where Patrick's accidental use freaks out Clementine as it makes her vaguely remember what was erased), and it even appears as a Running Gag:
      Joel: I had a really nice time last night.
      Clem: (grins) Nice?
      Joel: (laughing) I had the best fucking night of my entire fucking life last night.
      Clem: That's better!
  • 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.
  • Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: Even after they have each erased one other from their memories, Joel and Clementine both meet up the next day in the place they first met and then start to fall in love all over again. As well as being very sweet, it shows that Clementine also tried to resist her mind being wiped in the same way we see Joel do in the film.
  • Berserk Button: When Joel accuses Clementine of fucking people to get them to like her, she storms out of the apartment and officially breaks things off with him.
  • Beta Couple:
    • Mary and Stan, who both work at Lacuna and are seeing each other. Then it's revealed that Mary was previously with Howard.
    • Joel's friends Rob and Carrie, who experience similar relationship issues to he and Clementine.
  • Betty and Veronica: Though we never meet Naomi, Joel's live-in girlfriend when he first meets Clementine, through his descriptions of her we can infer she was a "nice" Girl Next Door, in contrast to Clementine's Manic Pixie Dream Girl (though she herself lampshades and subverts this about herself). Joel chooses Clementine, the "Veronica", over Naomi's "Betty".
  • 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. According to Word of God, one idea for the course of their relationship was they would get together, break up, wipe their memories, and start over multiple times.
  • The Blank: Faces in partially-erased memories.
  • A Bloody Mess: Joel uses a ketchup packet to "slit" his throat.
  • 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.
    Joel: Is there any risk of brain damage?
    Howard: Well, technically speaking, the operation is brain damage, but it's on a par with a night of heavy drinking. Nothing you'll miss.
  • 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. And worse yet, in a deleted scene, it is revealed that Howard also convinced her to have an abortion.
  • 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.
  • Brick Joke:
    • In their break-up scene, Clementine comes in drunk saying she may have damaged the car. After their blazing row and her storming out, Joel follows her. When he tries to drive after her, he has to remove the car from a fire hydrant.
    • When Clementine and Joel meet at the start of the movie, she asks him not to joke about "Huckleberry Hound", and he doesn't know it because it's been erased from his memory. When we see their true first meeting, the song is the first thing Joel says when he hears her name.
  • Caught with Your Pants Down: One of Joel's humiliating memories is his mother catching him masturbating to crude, hand-drawn porn as a teen.
  • Contrived Coincidence: The unconscious Joel manages to piece together Patrick's relationship with Clementine and the deception he's used to win her over by overhearing a brief phone conversation between them.
  • 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: We first meet Joel and Clem when they are at the Dead Sparks stage of the relationship. The rest of the movie is about how they ignited those sparks in the first place and ends with the hope that they could be reignited.
    Joel: "Are we like those poor couples you feel sorry for in restaurants? Are we the dining dead?"
  • Deconstruction: The film deconstructs the romantic comedy genre simply by showing the events of the weeks and months 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. Also functions as a Decon-Recon Switch; it's during the deconstruction of their relationship that we see why they fell for each other in the first place... and then they do so again by the end of the film.
  • Double Take: Clementine makes 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.
  • 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), red in the first part of their relationship when they were happy, orange when her relationship with Joel was falling apart, and blue after her memory is wiped of Joel (and when they meet a second time).
  • Fade to White: How the film ends.
  • Fan Disservice: At one point Clementine briefly strips down to her thong, but only to check a (very ugly) bruise she gave herself from slipping on ice.
  • Fanservice:
    • As Joel is about to have the procedure done, there's a quick sequence of him changing into his pajamas - just to show Jim Carrey shirtless.
    • In another scene where Clementine is changing for a party, she walks into the room in her bra and then pulls the dress on.
    • Mary and Stan also spend a good portion of the second act in their underwear.
  • Fantastic Aesop: Loving someone is worth the pain of bad times with them, and ripping them out of your memory is a lot more trouble and pain than remembering them.
  • Fictional Constellations: Discussed when Clementine and Joel have their (apparently) first date on a frozen lake at night. Clem asks Joel to point out constellations though he doesn't know any, so he makes one up off the top of his head: Osidious The Emphatic ("Right over there, kind of a swoop and a cross").
  • 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.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus:
    • A love letter from Clem to Joel briefly appears that can only be read if you pause the movie and look really closely.
    • Upon closer inspection, a lot can be inferred about Joel's relationship with Clementine from the objects he throws out to erase her.
    • A montage towards the end has random single frames inserted that show happy moments between Joel and Clementine.
    • Joel's bedside table has a copy of Dante's The Divine Comedy on it - appropriate for both plot and theme.
  • Genre Mashup: A science-fiction romantic comedy-drama with some scenes that even border on psychological horror, most of which takes place inside the main character's head.
  • The Ghost: Naomi is talked about but never seen on-screen. Joel breaks up with her for Clem and later states that this was a mistake. Actually, there was a sub-plot involving Joel having a one-night stand with his Naomi (played by Ellen Pompeo), but it was deleted from the final cut of the film.
  • Girlish Pigtails: Clementine sports braided ones in a few scenes.
  • Girls Have Cooties: When Joel brings the memory of Clementine into his memory of being babysat as a toddler, he also takes on the mindset of a toddler. Consequently, when Clem flashes her underwear at Joel, he reacts with childish disgust.
  • Hilarity Ensues: What happens when a man hides his girlfriend in his childhood memories.
    Clementine/Joel's childhood nanny: Okay, this is REALLY twisted.
  • I Am Not Pretty: Clementine has severe body image issues and at one point calls Patrick because she's freaking out about her looks.
  • If You Can Read This: Upon closer inspection, a love note Clementine wrote to Joel reveals that they had sex on the ice after the scene where they lie down on the frozen Charles.
  • 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.
  • Just Train Wrong:
    • The big Long Island Rail Road logos on the train cars don't hide the red stripes that are the distinctive livery of Metro-North Railroad's New Haven Line, which serves Connecticut and southern Westchester County.
    • And, Joel gets on the train at the New Rochelle station, not in Brooklyn.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: Well, computer-guided really...
  • Literary Allusion Title: The page quote, from Alexander Pope's "Eloisa to Abelard". Mary directly quotes from it late in the film.
  • 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.
  • Love Makes You Dumb: One of the explanations why Joel and Clem fall for each other again and again, though knowing that their relationship was bound to fail.
  • Maybe Ever After: The movie ends with Joel and Clementine discovering that they erased each other. It's left ambiguous as to whether they'll give their relationship another go. They have been destructive in the past and it's likely it could end badly — as it would have in a different ending. But throughout the process, Joel realises he does love her and tries to prevent it, so it's possible they could have learned from their mistakes.
  • 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: Lacuna Inc are a non-MIB version, removing memories of bad relationships. They would even set up in the client's home so they would wake up without any idea that something had happened.
  • 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: During any love scenes, Clementine is covered by the bedsheets.
  • My Biological Clock Is Ticking: Prior to their break-up, Clementine says she wants to have a baby. Joel scoffs that she wouldn't be able to raise one.
  • 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.
  • No Antagonist: Joel's challenge is how he can make the memory-wiping process stop. Although Stan is the one doing the wiping, he has no idea that Joel has changed his mind.
    • Patrick is, a Romantic False Lead at best and a perverted jerkass at worse. However, stealing memories (not to mention their underwear) of someone just to seduce them shows he's not exactly a man of good character.
  • Oblivious Guilt Slinging: Early on, when Joel returns to his apartment to get Clementine erased from his mind, his neighbor congratulates him for having such a cool girlfriend.
  • Old Maid: At one point Clementine freaks out and says, "I'm getting old". Kate Winslet was around twenty seven when the film was made.
  • 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.
  • Practical Effects: Virtually all of the most bizarre and fascinating scenes in this movie were created with old-fashioned camera, editing, lighting and prop/set tricks. The use of digital effects was very limited.
    • The striking kitchen scene with Joel as a child was created with an elaborate Forced Perspective set-up similar to some used by Peter Jackson in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
    • The rising water in the beach house was created by building a house by the beach and waiting for the tide to come in.
    • Many of the "erased" book spines in the bookstore scene are just books turned around so that they are spine-in instead of spine-out.
    • Clementine performing a Teleport Spam around Joel's apartment is actually Kate Winslet using hidden passages to get from one room to the other; that scene is done in one shot.
  • Precision F-Strike:
    Joel: I had a really nice time last night.
    Clementine: Nice?
    Joel: I had the best fucking time of my entire fucking life last night!
    Clementine: Thaaat's better!
  • Prolonged Prologue: The opening credits appear 18 minutes into the film, at the end of the first reel.
  • Quick Nip: At the Montauk restaurant Joel watches Clem spiking her coffee with spirit from a flask she brought with.
  • Relationship Reboot: Joel and Clem literally wipe the slate clean... if by "slate" you mean "the memories of their romance". Mary turns out to have tried this with Dr. Mierzwiak as well.
  • 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 if you don't remember your own history, you're likely to repeat it.
    • 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 Twist. This is a more positive spin on the theme: You Can't Fight Fate where love is concerned.
  • Rewatch Bonus: Once you've watched the film once, your experience of the opening scene on the train will never be the same.
  • Ripped from the Phone Book: Downplayed. In the last scene when Clem tracks down Joel at his apartment, we see her in the car holding a ripped out telephone page with Joel's address marked up.
  • 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.
    • Clementine also suggests that Joel invoke this trope when leaving the beach house by offering that he should stay. Joel however tells her that he can't go back because the memory of the house had already been erased.
  • 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.
  • Sequencing Deception: The first scene, where Joel goes out to Montauk and meets Clementine, actually takes place after most of the events in the rest of the film, right after Joel's memories are completely erased.
  • 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 off 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.
  • Slip into Something More Comfortable: At the beach house Clem mentions "I'm gonna go find the bedroom and slip into something more ... Ruth".
  • Slut-Shaming: Joel doing this to Clementine is what prompts their break-up.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: Hollis, Howard's wife, gets only two scenes, but drops the Wham Line specified below.
  • Snow Means Love: A lot of Joel and Clementine's happy memories take place in a snowy place, particularly on the frozen lake (two entire scenes and the film's poster). Patrick basically tries to steal this trope from Joel and force it onto Clem to no avail. The film drives the point home with last shot being of the two joyfully running on the beach as it starts to snow.
  • Stalker with a Crush:
    • Discussed. Clem asks Joel if he is a stalker when he offers her a lift home from the metro. He replies that it was her coming on to him in the first place which she calls "the oldest trick in the stalker book".
    • Patrick counts as a straight example. He is essentially seducing Clementine with passages from Joel's journals, and even gives her a present Joel had bought for Valentine's Day.
  • Stargazing Scene: Clementine takes Joel on a romantic trip onto a frozen lake where they lay down and watch the stars. Clementine asks Joel which constellations he knows but he doesn't know any, so he makes one up.
  • There Are No Therapists: Had Joel and Clementine gone to counselling of some kind, there would probably be no movie.
  • Title Drop: The page quote, which appears in the film as recited by Mary.
  • 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.
  • A Tragedy of Impulsiveness: Even lampshaded when Joel becomes self-aware of the erasure:
    Joel: I don't know. You erased me. That's why I'm here and doing this.
    Clementine: Sorry.
    Joel: You.
    Clementine: You know me. I'm impulsive.
    Joel: (Beat) That's what I love about you.
  • 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.
  • 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 cruel towards Joel; however, while she's the Hot-Blooded of the two, there's probably major bias since it's from Joel's perspective.
  • Uptight Loves Wild: The film quite thoroughly deconstructs this. A relationship like this doesn't always work and after the falling-in-love part, it causes more pain than joy; so much so that both parties opt to have their memories removed of each other.
  • Valentine's Day Vitriol: Around the start of the film, Joel writes the following in his journal:
    "Random thoughts for Valentine's Day, 2003: Today is a day invented by greeting card companies to make people feel like crap."
  • Van in Black: Joel is suspicious of the van following him in front of his apartment. Little does he know that it belongs to Lacuna's Memory-Wiping Crew.
  • Vorpal Pillow: Played for Laughs. The two main characters take turns pretending to smother each other, probably as foreplay. Clem calls Joel out for coming out of character too soon.
  • 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 without seeing it or knowing the source material, it sounds like randomly selected buzzwords.
  • 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, which to him probably appears as unexpected blips popping up on a memory mapping computer.
  • 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.