“How happy is the blameless vestals lot! / The world forgetting, by the world forgot / Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! / Each prayr accepted, and each wish resignd.”
Michael Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) is really an alternative romantic comedy. “It is not exactly science-fiction, it is not quite drama, and it is not really a romantic comedy” (in Kleinman, 2008). It is a complex film which brings us several philosophical questions such as: what would happen if people were capable of deleting the painful memories of their failed relationships? How many times in life can a person love someone? How strong are memories in human minds?
The title of the film is inspired by verses written by Alexander Pope.
In fact the title of the film was taken from those verses. In order to understand the deep message of this complex and alternative romantic comedy it is necessary to analyse the producer and screenwriter Charlie Kauftman, screenwriter in Being John Malkovich (Spinke Jonze, 1999) and also in Adaptation (Spinke Jonze, 2002).
In the film Charlie Kaufman examines the existing relationships between personal identity, memory and love. Through the portrayal in the film by the characters Clementine (Kate Winslet) and Joel (Jim Carrey) Kaufman makes us aware of the power of memories (or at least of how our identity becomes configured by those memories), the reinforcement of how indestructible shared experiences are (this is represented by the characters finding themselves on the beach in Montauk at the same time) and the failure when trying to replace a relationship (this is illustrated by Patrick’s failed attempt to make Clem fall in love with him by imitating Joel´s behavior).
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind breaks the romantic comedy mold. It offers a hybrid of a romantic and science-fiction storyline, while borrowing conventional aspects of the romantic comedy genre. However the romance portrayed in the film is far from conventional romantic comedies. Clementine and Joel are not compatible, but they do love each other. The aim of what follows is to analyse the main characteristics that make the film an unconventional romantic comedy and the different innovative angles from which the romance is explored.
4.1 Breaking the conventions of the conventional linear narrative and time of romantic comedies
Stanley Cavell identified a dominant narrative form of the genre which he labeled “the comedy of remarriage” (1981:41). The formulaic nature of this genre presents several variations; however the most commonly used is the narrative of the romantic comedy which sees the couple initially separated, facing factors beyond their control but in the end reuniting after various misunderstandings and problems. The romantic comedy genre puts emphasis on “the triad order/ disorder/ order-restored” Hayward, (1996: 45). So for instance, at the beginning of Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938), one of the most celebrated screwball comedy films, the “order” is produced when the film starts with Professor David Huxley (Cary Grant), who is about to marry Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker), meets Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) on a golf course. The “disorder” is produced when Susan loses her pet leopard and she realises that she loves and avoids David’s wedding. The “order-restored” is portrayed when Susan and David declare their feelings to each other and they finally live happily ever after.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind does not follow Hayward’s structure. It begins at the end of their story rather than at its start so in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind what happens seems to be the opposite of the traditional linear narrative, presenting a narrative structure that one would not expect. The interesting story of the film focuses on Joel Barish, who is very surprised and hurt after discovering that through the use of a medical procedure in Lacuna Inc. Company his girlfriend Clementine Kruczynski has erased him and all the memories that they shared through their chaotic and difficult relationship together. Clementine makes her decision after discovering that they are completely opposites. While Joel does not like to talk much, lives with a deep emptiness and has difficulties in expressing his emotions, Clementine is very open with her emotions:
Clementine: You don’t tell me things Joel. I’m an open book. I tell you everything every damn, embarrassing thing. You don’t trust me?
Joel: Constantly talking isn’t necessarily communicatingâ€¦
They have very different personalities and it is this great difference in personality that causes misunderstandings they have at the very beginning of their relationship. As their relationship continues they do not only learn the virtues but also the faults and imperfections of the other: this becomes the main reason why Clementine goes through the medical procedure to erase her memories of Joel. Desperate, Joel decides to go through the same procedure to eliminate any possible memory of Clementine. As his mind is gradually erased, Joel realises he is making a big mistake because he deeply loves Clementine, and begins to fight against the erasing process in order to forever maintain the memories of the woman he loves.
Michael Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind definitely doesn’t fit into the conventional narrative of a romantic comedy; the peculiarity of this romantic comedy is centered on the script that confuses the viewer with a nonlinear and inversed plot with continuous changes not only in time, but also in space where the beginning of the film is also the end. Its complex structure allows the film to alternate between three narratives: the real world, Joel’s mind, and memories of his past. Good examples of the complex narrative of the film are the jumps in time. In the first and one of the last scenes of the film: the scene is the same. Joel appears to be waking up on what seems to be a normal day, nothing seems out of the ordinary, but later the viewer discovers that it is the first day of his new life after having completed the process to forget Clementine. Seconds later Joel leaves his house to find his car scratched. He assumes that the driver of the car parked next to his is to blame. However, the truth is that Clementine damaged the car after returning home drunk one night.
Therefore the narration of the film breaks the mold of the romantic comedy genre by differing from every possible element of the conventional linear format of romantic comedies through the use of the flashbacks. These flashbacks could make it difficult to differentiate between past, present and future events because flashbacks and flash-forwards are never clearly indicated. However the screenplay writer includes various clues to make it easier for the viewer to piece together the sequence of events. Examples of this type of narration, but not necessarily films framed into the genre of the romantic comedy include Crash (Paul Haggis, 2005), Syriana (Stephen Gaghan, 2006), and Babel (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2006).
4.2 The painful side of love
Another example that determines Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind into the alternative romantic comedy is they presence of the painful side of love in the film. Whereas romantic comedies tend to hide the painful side of love with the death of one of the lovers as happens in Big Fish (Tim Burton, 2003) or with a sad farewell as in The Notebook (Nick Cassavetes, 2004), others simply don’t address it, as occurs in My Big Fat Greek Wedding (Joel Zwick, 2002) or the pain is simply reduced to a series of unfortunate misunderstandings or external obstacles as in Meet the Parents (Jay Roach, 2000). Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind does not hide the painful side of romance. It shows the presence of suffering and the cruelty caused in a sentimental relationship where the feeling of pain is continuously present taking apart the unrealistic image that Hollywood romances usually give to love. The most relevant example is the scene of the frozen Charles River where Joel says to Clementine: “I could die right now, Clem. I’m justâ€¦happy. I’ve never felt that before. I’m just exactlyâ€¦.where I wanna be”
Joel: By morning, you’ll be gone.
Joel: What a loss to spend that much time with someone, only to find out that she’s a stranger
Happily ever after?
“Why do people think relationships are supposed to last forever anyway?”
Jesse, Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater, 1995)
A common strategy employed by romantic comedies is the traditional happy ending, as happens in You’ve got an email (Nora Eprhon, 1998) or in Notthing Hill (Roger Michell, 1999). However, the film may end with the central couple dissolved but the lovers still happy as occurs in Lost in translation (Sofía Coppola, 2003). Or it could simply be left as an unresolved ending as in Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004). Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind lacks of a portrayal of a traditional ending, this lack is due to the acceptance of the couple condemned to an end when deciding to keep the tape that contains the erased memories.
As mentioned before, romantic comedies usually present happy endings: the couple fall in love, are about to begin a relationship, and are portrayed in a moment of perfect happiness in the film’s closing scenes. Nevertheless, the ending of Eternal Sunshine suggests that the couple’s future is not a “happily ever after”. Instead of presenting the idea of eternal happiness, the film’s final dialogues make it clear to the viewer that the romance has an ending date:
Clementine: This is it, Joel. It’s going to be gone soon.
Joel: I know.
Clementine: What do we do?
Joel: Enjoy it.
The film represents what many Hollywood romances avoid addressing: that love is not always a “happily ever after”. When Joel and Clementine finish listening to the tape, their acceptance of both their past and future mistakes is present with “Okay”:
Joel: I can’t see anything that I don’t like about you.
Clementine: But you will! But you will. You know, you will think of things. And I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me.
Clementine: [pauses] Okay.
The fact that Joel and Clementine make the decision to begin their romance again is a proof of their acceptance of love as an intense and highly passionate emotion. As a result it appears that although the majority of the narrative is concerned with the process of forgetting, the couple eventually realise something very valuable: while they rediscover their forgotten past, Joel and Clementine learn more about themselves. Their decision to begin their relationship again is based on recognising not only their past mistakes, but also just how fragile romantic love is. Whether this knowledge allows them to avoid the problems they suffered before is unknown, but in many ways this is no longer important. The idea of love that is presented in this ending is not implying an eternal love but rather represents something transitory, offering realism and differing from the concept of romantic love.
Given this model of romantic love and in opposition to it, the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, introduced the term of “liquid love”. Bauman argues that human bonds have become fragile, lacking strength and designed to be more and more transitory, superficial and with less commitment.
The ending of this film does not reaffirm the concept of romantic love as commonly presented in romantic comedies, but affirms a different concept that incorporates Bauman’s concept of love as a liquid love with an ephemeral nature.
There are several scenes which contribute to the sense of ephemeral love of the couple: the repeated scene in which Joel and Clementine playing in the snow, as snow is destined to melt and eventually disappear. The melancholic music accompanying some of the scenes (Beck’s song, “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime”) heard at the beginning of the film over the top of images of Joel crying after his break-up with Clementine but also in the end where the use of the same song in such different moments, seems to suggest that the beginning is the end.
It also seems significant that at the end of the story, a second chance for the couple isn’t confirmed with a kiss or a hug, but is acknowledged by the couple whilst they maintain a safe distance breaking the format which is usually followed in the majority of mainstream romantic comedies. Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind evokes what Cavell (1981) stated with regard to romantic comedies of Hollywood involving marital reconciliation: happiness cannot be achieved once and for all, but is a daily battle. The couple face a second chance with a new perspective based on knowing and accepting who their partner truly is and what they can expect of each other (thanks to the experiences that they have already shared). This new knowledge is emphasised by the song heard in the backgroud: Everybody Needs to Learn Sometime by Beck. As such, the film provides a more realistic portrayal of romance than those found in so many conventional comedies. However, this doesn’t mean that it is doesn’t offer hope: essentially it illustrates the capacity a couple has to overcome the (tremendous) mistakes that they are capable of making.
What should be thought of its ending? That Joel and Clementine have learnt from their mistakes and that their relationship will improve in the future? That their relationship will break down as it did before? What’s important isn’t the answer, but the uncertainty which the film leaves the viewer with, because that’s the truth about relationships, at least as we see them today: they are unstable, uncontrollable, and although people try to make the best of their relationships and reduce daily problems as much as they can, there are too many factors involved to be able to make the relationship a success with ease. In the end, there is no secret to achieving a successful long-term relationship. It’s simply a combination of luck, chemistry and the capability to grow and reinvent oneself as a couple. However, this is something which is much easier to say than to do.