‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’: Still Hard to Forget

‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’: Still Hard to Forget

They say the only cure for heartbreak is time, although a lobotomy might be more effective. It’s a thorny conceit that Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) tested out for our pleasure in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” by erasing memories of her ex-boyfriend, Joel Barish (Jim Carrey). Michel Gondry’s surreal love story stunned audiences in 2004 and remains hard to forget 20 years later.

Like all painful breakups, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” has lingered in the consciousness long after the love story’s expiration date. The screenwriter Charlie Kaufman — who was fresh off the critical double-hitters “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation” — wrote Clementine and Joel’s love affair as a claustrophobic, unspooling maze that earned the movie an Oscar for best screenplay. Kirsten Dunst and Mark Ruffalo were knocking on stardom’s door when they gave delightful supporting performances as haphazard assistants of the memory-erasing company Lacuna Inc. The movie was one of a handful of romantic comedies from its decade (including “Lost in Translation” and “(500) Days of Summer”) that redefined what it meant to be both misunderstood and in love; in this cinematic landscape, love interests didn’t end up happily ever after. What they gave instead was the idea that maybe a love lost isn’t necessarily a net loss.

As Clementine, an erratic and compulsive bookstore clerk, Winslet gives a career-redefining performance. Today, her idiosyncratic character lives on TikTok and Tumblr as a patron saint of women who are paradoxically lovable and terrifying. (“I apply my personality as a paste,” she says of her hair dye, aptly titled Blue Ruin.) Her legacy stands in the pantheon of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, a fast-talking screwball woman who protests, “Too many guys see me as a concept.” Most of all, she loves her own despair — if the film had come out today, it would be easy to imagine her posting about Prozac, stomach aches and Ottessa Moshfegh novels.

And as Joel, Carrey remains an avatar for frustratingly plain and tightly wound men. After Joel discovers that Clementine has zapped him and their relationship thanks to Lacuna Inc., he decides to do the same. (In a contemporary parallel, I have blocked someone on Instagram to regain a sense of control, only to discover the psychic torture persists.) Together, they tumble through Joel’s tangled and chimeric subconscious in quotidian montages of early bliss and innocent flirtations.

Along the way, Joel realizes he’d rather have all of Clementine, heartbreak included, than none of her. He desperately tries to salvage the memories as they’re deleted, trapping himself in a maze of his own psyche. The film spins out of control, traversing realities and timelines, until we are left with a teary-eyed Clementine and Joel, who acknowledge the futility of their relationship. “I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me,” asserts Clementine. “OK,” Joel says with a smirk and then agrees to try again, despite knowing the inevitable disaster of their attraction.

“There’s an emotional core to each of our memories, and when you eradicate that core, it starts its degradation process,” explains Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) to Joel as he mulls over the procedure. It’s an intoxicating premise that Joel is understandably seduced by. Today, it seems ever-present to compartmentalize and optimize past our pain, a compulsion enabled and compounded by tech. (Think of the pang you feel when the iPhone Memories feature unceremoniously confronts you with a photo of someone you loved who is now a stranger.) Our need for connection has never been greater, yet our lives are scattered across screens. And everything, in turn, has become devoid of emotional risk.

Brain damage as the antidote to love is an ambitious movie premise, but the film’s uncanny truths have proved timeless. We live in lonely times, and Joel serves as an Everyman for our current lovesickness. In a dating culture preoccupied with “looksmaxxing” on apps like Hinge and Tinder, finding love can often feel like a hollow science fiction plot not far from Lacuna Inc. We are taught by online therapists, and smiling pop stars on Instagram and YouTube, to watch out for gaslighting, love-bombing and other red flags in potential partners. It’s become easier to pathologize ourselves and our histories in isolation than to allow ourselves to be seen.

It’s refreshing then to watch Joel and Clementine’s relationship play out — each character is littered with crimson flags and emotional baggage. Sure, Clementine is erratic and a liability, a problem unto herself for which there is no solution. But it’s also these qualities that make her mesmerizing and irresistible to Joel.

“I can’t see anything that I don’t like about you,” Joel says pleadingly to Clementine to get her to stay. “But you will,” she roars knowingly. It’s in that last scene — when Joel meets Clementine and they accept each other as their strangest and most frustrating selves — that makes their love so compelling to watch over and over again.

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