Memory is all we are. Moments and feelings, captured in amber, strung on filaments of reason. Take a man’s memories and you take all of him. Chip away a memory at a time and you destroy him as surely as if you hammered nail after nail through his skull.
We are the sum total of our memories. Memories are the most precious things we have. Good or bad. That’s what make us who we are. What would we be without them?
Nothing fixes a thing so intensely in the memory as the wish to forget it.
There is no one, no matter how wise he is, who has not in his youth said things or done things that are so unpleasant to recall in later life that he would expunge them entirely from his memory if that were possible.
Our fellow travelers on the journey of life take things from us. They can’t help it, and some of them would genuinely rather give than take. But the closer they get to us, the more they entangle themselves in our lives, the more we will then feel obliged to share with them. Our memories can no longer be ours alone. They will in some sense relate to the person we’ve told. When we love someone, we give such things away freely, knowing that they become only more valuable in the sharing. Still, the risk of loss never goes away.
With Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the director Michel Gondry and the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman crafted an exploration of the themes of love and memory. They tell a story about a breakup fueled by sinister technology. A woman wishes to have all memory of her ex erased from her mind, so she goes to a company that specializes in that very thing. The man finds out about this and asks for the same procedure to be performed on him. But as the memories flood his mind, getting wiped out one by one, he sees enough happiness to make him regret his decision. Can the procedure be stopped? Can the memories be saved?
The film is a wonder to behold: for the structure of its story, the ingenuity of its making, the poignancy of its performances, and the insights it reveals. Kaufman’s tale glides along a spectrum of film genres — from romantic comedy to melodrama to science fiction to surreal horror and all the way back again — while never losing the bruised, frustrated humanity at its core. He clearly learned all the right lessons from Memento, telling his story from finish to (re-)start so that everything is eventually laid out for us but we still have to work for it. Without gimmickry, the movie demands to be watched again after it’s over, both for the hope of understanding things more fully and the desire to recapture what’s been lost.
The technicians at Lacuna, Inc. destroy memories, but movies save them — they make something tangible and repeatable out of them. Of course, movies are external to us, and they can never be as intimate or intense as an actual memory. However, Gondry’s visual probing into the human mind makes a fine metaphor. He has various special effects at his disposal, from analog optical tricks to digital manipulation of the image. Reality begins to warp when the man getting his memory erased first becomes aware of his situation and is able to observe the process in a kind of out-of-body experience (although it’s all happening inside his head). The sheer variety of techniques used to convey the erasure is staggering, and meaningful. It reveals the paradoxes of a physical force crashing into metaphysical reality — a computer essentially attacking the human mind, an ordered structure brushing up against the ineffable.
It’s about time we met the principals, because no matter how many ideas the film throws at us, those ideas only illustrate real human problems. The relationship between Joel (played by Jim Carrey) and Clementine (played by Kate Winslet), as it progresses backwards from collapse to disenchantment to ecstasy to discovery, is tragic and beautiful all at once. Carrey reveals depths of sadness that his comedy typically obscures (to say the least); his performance pulls off the trick of creating a character who would surely be baffled by some of the other roles Carrey has played. At the same time, this performer is more than ready to take the dreamlike odyssey Kaufman and Gondry have planned for him. But no matter how good he is, the movie belongs to Winslet. Her character isn’t merely quirky and adventurous, but volatile, independent, and occasionally self-destructive. She exerts her will onto this male-dominated film even while much of her performance is just a projection from inside another character’s psyche. Her life force transcends realism.
The other major players in this drama work for Lacuna, Inc. They glibly oversee the procedure while Joel experiences his metaphysical crisis. Since most of the work is accomplished by a computer, they’re free to take full advantage of the fact that Joel will remember nothing about them after they’re done, stealing his drinks and generally partying in his home without his knowledge. As Joel begins to resist the process, however, they find their work dragging on longer into the night than they’d anticipated. The delay allows for certain facts to come to light which will ultimately work in Joel’s (and Clementine’s) favor. Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst, and Tom Wilkinson all do terrific work in these supporting roles. If there’s one character that still doesn’t entirely sit well with me, it’s Patrick (played by Elijah Wood). He’s a one-dimensional weirdo whose only real purpose is to goose the plot along from time to time, and Wood plays him awkwardly. I think if he were erased from the film the story would still basically work.
This film reveals some difficult truth about both memories and relationships. The good is inseparable from the bad, satisfaction from regret, pleasure from pain. Everyone we meet will give us some measure of all these things. If time is doing its job properly, the good will someday overshadow the bad in our recollection. But in the moment, the bad is almost always felt more intensely. Humans are self-destructive that way. What we need to realize is that we can’t altogether cast off another person without losing much that is good — indeed, without casting off part of ourselves. As the film opens, Joel and Clementine meet again after having their memories erased. They walk about like fragments of people. Journal entries have vanished; beloved childhood toys have been lost forever in the psychic house-cleaning. In the film’s conclusion we see hope and despair locked together. The former lovers have found their way back to each other against the odds, and now they get a fresh start. But then, there’s little reason to assume that a relationship which failed the first time will succeed the second. Mightn’t they be on the road to experience the same pain again? The film leaves us with both possibilities. That’s the risk of loving someone. It’s the act of stepping out, gingerly, onto the ice, so we can look at the stars.
Love is the emblem of eternity: it confounds all notion of time: effaces all memory of a beginning, all fear of an end.