Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a rare gem of the romance genre. On paper, its plot sounds maddeningly complex – Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) appear to be embarking upon a new relationship, only to find out that they are ex-lovers who both recently underwent procedures to have each other erased from their memories. If, like me, you watched this film after emerging from a long-term relationship, it feels refreshingly realistic. Haven’t we all wished we could erase painful memories from a failed relationship, but have to accept that the bad came with loads of good? It’s a basic idea, delivered in an innovative way.
As if the mind-erasing alone wasn’t challenging enough, the bulk of the film actually takes place in Joel’s mind, where we see his memories of Clem being erased in reverse chronological order. Before long, Joel’s consciousness recalls their happy memories together, decides he wants to stop the erasing process, and tries to hide Clem in the recesses of his brain. Oh, and their original relationship’s rewound story is framed by post-erasure Joel and Clem trying to figure out if they should give it a(nother) go. Talk about high-concept. Although it sounds heavy-going, the action flows quite sensibly and doesn’t distract from the development of the characters’ nuanced psychological portraits. Charlie Kaufman’s pithy screenplay combined with Michel Gondry’s sensitive vision creates an accessibly profound portrayal of a tumultuous relationship and its aftermath.
Eternal Sunshine relies on its female romantic lead to provide its spark, and Kate Winslet’s Clementine does not disappoint. She’s a scene-stealer, playing against type as a Jim-Carrey-esque character opposite the man himself. Clem is an inspiringly quirky and energetic girl, not unlike familiar characters such as Zooey Deschanel’s Summer (500 Days of Summer) or Natalie Portman’s Sam (Garden State) – but she manages to transcend the stock character type.
While Clem’s alluring and sexy, she’s also aggressive in a candid way; when Joel cuts a conversation short, she punches him hard in the arm in a mock-friendly gesture, out of frustration. Credit goes to Winslet for that – the punch wasn’t in the script. Clem is confident yet aware of her limitations; yes, she dyes her hair wacky colours, but she self-deprecatingly comments: “I apply my personality in a paste.” Her painful self-awareness adds a compelling darker side to her quirky appeal – we see her spike her midday diner cup of coffee with alcohol from a flask, openly self-medicating. Winslet doesn’t allow Clem’s antics to become cartoonish – her restless, demanding energy clearly masks her vulnerability and deep-seated insecurity.
To the film’s credit, Clementine’s candidly self-aware presentation is partly possible because half the time, she is a construction, a manifestation of Joel’s consciousness while they try to outrun the memory-erasers. This allows a reflexive level of commentary not usually credible in films. Clem can say things like, “you know me, I’m impulsive” and it doesn’t sound artificial. It’s a nifty structural device – in novels, characters can self-reflect through third-person narration or interior monologues, but in films, the usual option is breaking the fourth wall. Kaufman’s screenplay innovatively circumvents this.
In comparison to other onscreen female romantic leads, Kate Winslet’s Clementine stands apart by insisting on not being idealized. As James Brown sang, it’s a man’s world. So it’s not unexpected that so many films feature some guy’s fantasy of a woman – a sexy, mysteriously appealing object of affection put up on a pedestal – rather than anything approaching the real thing. Men – in the films as well as the audiences – end up falling in love with the idea of the girl instead of the girl herself; a mildly irritating situation for the girls in the audience, because it happens in real life all too often. But Clem’s pre-dating spiel is: “Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s looking for my own peace of mind; don’t assign me yours.” Finally, an upfront rejection of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl myth! No mystery, no pedestal – just an independent, vibrant, openly flawed woman doing her best. I just wish we saw more female characters like this on screen.