Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Precious Heartbreak

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Precious Heartbreak January 31, 2023

Focus Features via “IMDb”

The appeal of Michel Gondry’s 2004 romance, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, rests on a simple premise: what if you could erase from your mind all the memories of someone who brought you pain?

This is a possibility posed to Joel Barrish and Clementine Kruczynski, who undergo such a procedure after a long romance and a brutal break-up. We experience this film primarily through the eyes of Joel, who wants the procedure done after finding that Clementine has already done the same for him, and we watch him inside his mind as his memories of Clementine disappear one-by-one.

Because Joel experiences these memories in retrograde, the frustrating interactions that drove them apart give way to the beautiful memories that brought them together. He gets to remember what made him fall in love with Clementine to begin with. And it’s not just the “fun” memories that draw you into their relationship. We see that despite their differences, Joel and Clementine brought out a side of one another that was vulnerable, brave even. We start to recognize, as Joel does, that he is not in fact better off without the memories of failed relationship with Clementine.

Focus Features via MIC

Science hasn’t yet developed the procedure depicted in this film–none of us possess the ability to actually expunge ourselves of uncomfortable, shameful, or distressing memories. But how many of us approach mortality in this way? How many of us try to live a life without uncomfortable experiences by pre-emptively avoiding situations that might make eventually cause us hurt? How many of us have ever turned away from something that might bring us joy because it might also bring us heartbreak?

Mortality is precious because of its frustrations–because of the things that drive us nuts and break our hearts. They unlock the deeper trove of human emotions. This also plays out through Clementine’s storyline. Having gone through the procedure, Clementine finds herself in a post-Joel world.  She recognizes that she is missing something, but she is unable to put a name to this gap, and we see what confusion is wrought by her deleting a part of her identity. God knew what he was doing when he designed heartbreak as part of the mortal experience, and we would do well not to avoid it.

Focus Features via “Complex”

This is how Joel is at the start of the narrative. Before his relationship with Clementine, Joel was withdrawn and seemingly incapable of taking chances. But after their time together, and especially after the procedure, Joel is ready to embrace the craziness that a love with Clementine might have to offer him. We see this in the final scene when he chooses to go after her and tell her he’s ready to be with her now. This he does accepting that they might eventually fall apart, as they did before this procedure, but the fact that this bit of character development survived the erasure suggests that this particular character flaw has been resolved, that he is a different person now.

This is part of the reason why–even if there is something profound to the thoughtful portrayal of a romance that doesn’t ultimately last–a part of me has always thought that Joel and Clem might have a chance after all. Joel getting to correct his mistake points to the transcendent nature of the human soul. It suggests that the soul can elude and overcome human efforts to shape or trim it, and certainly speaks to a kind of divinity that outlasts our human failings.

But maybe that’s a post for another time …

Focus Features via “Cinema Blend”

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