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Nice & Merciful: Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind

By Jeffrey W. Peterson - April 29, 2016, 8:00 AM

Humans are quick. Impulsive. Natural-born runners because of our ability to sweat and dig our feet in at the same time. We’re quick to run to love, away from it, to spur it on, or move on from it. In no other film is this more clear than Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Early on, the film exposes our impulsive nature and how it can create an unsolvable maze if left to itself. When Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) meets Clementine (Kate Winslet) on a New York beach, they quickly recognize one another. Joel shies away, even though Clementine’s hair color, free spirit, and forward personality intrigue him. He tells us he’s not impulsive, but soon admits to falling in love with every woman he sees. Her extrovert personality envelops his reserved, over-analytical side. The relationship reticently grows faster than Joel can handle, but within a few hours, they’re sharing a car ride, drinks, phone calls, infatuation, and a honeymoon. At this point, their relationship isn’t entirely unfamiliar—most of us have surely fallen in love too fast for our thinking.

But Clementine, suddenly unhappy, moves on. Luckily, Joel’s friend, played by David Cross, is just as impulsive, and this is when Joel finds out about Lacuna, Inc. While Joel was settling for their decent relationship, Clementine sought out the services of a company that would wipe away the memory of a person. In her case, Joel. He immediately requests the same procedure himself, mostly out of spite, and definitely without considering the repercussions. Before the procedure to erase his memories is even half over, he begins to second guess his decision, but this is one of the twists of the movie: Joel is able to think within his dreams as he loses them, even arguing with Clementine in his memory and referencing the procedure. That’s the other shoe dropping: if you are consistently impulsive, you run the risk of regretting the actions you take without completely thinking them through.

The Lacuna, Inc., employees (played by Elijiah Wood, Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, and Tom Wilkinson) mimic the sporadic behavior of Joel and Clementine, reinforcing their impulsive nature. For instance, Ruffalo’s character, Stan, obnoxiously invites his girlfriend Mary (Kirsten Dunst) over during the memory procedure, with Joel strapped into the machine right in the middle of his apartment. We get the sense that pleasure is paramount here: it’s what drives Mary and Stan to make love at a completely inappropriate time, and it’s why Joel and Clementine decide to team up in Joel’s mind and attempt to break the memory deleting process. Every decision the characters make is made like this, in a split second.

[spoilers ahead] As Joel loses memories and attempts to hold on, he regrets more and more, impulsively and desperately attempting to hold onto what’s in his brain, even changing the course of some memories. Eventually, they make it to one of their early memories, when Clementine broke into a beach house with Joel, and he decided he didn’t want to get caught. Even in this dream, Joel walks away from the house, not because it falls apart, but out of fear. This pseudo ending visualizes the home breaking into pieces slowly, because by now Joel and Clementine have caught up to one another in their memories. It seems that he can change the course only if they can stop making careless decisions and choose to remember together. And therein lies the decision they have always avoided. They’ve never decided to communicate and share motivations, choosing instead to rely on rash choices. During this beach scene, Joel considers the repercussions, since he luckily has a second chance, and decides to take it.

Jeffrey W. Peterson currently teaches English composition at the University of West Georgia while also mentoring their English Education interns. He received a BA from West Georgia and a MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College. He is also the poetry editor for Madcap, a semiannual online journal of literature and art, and executive director for ALLIANCE Drum & Bugle Corps, an all-age drum corps based out of Atlanta, GA.