I’ve seen “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” seven times.
Mark Ruffalo in his underwear never gets old.
But aside from that, another reason that I’ve watched the film so often is because I’ve been there. But then, haven’t we all? Everyone’s taken a turn as bi-polar Clementine or stiff, uptight Joel at some point. Or at the very least, we wish, even at the risk of our sanity, to meet someone that shakes us to the core and turns our world upside down.
The film, set in present-day as well as in Joel’s memory, winds backwards and forwards, using subtle markers for time and reality.
My favourite of marker is the use of her hair color to indicate not only the period in their relationship, but also their feelings towards each other.
To put it in order: He first saw her, standing alone in front of the ocean in Montauk. She is wearing the orange sweatshirt that he will come to hate and her hair is green. Not a toxic green, but more of like a tomato that was not quite ready. “Green” like the term to say that someone or something is still new. “Green” as in “green jokes” (a term for dirty jokes in some cultures) wherein it being with her, in that empty house, as a man with a live-in girlfriend would see as somewhat “dirty” and “illicit” yet also irresistible. As the film moves farther back (or forwards in this analysis), the romance blossomed, like his pet name for her, into sweet Tangerines. However, their happiest and most frustrating moments are with Clementine as a fiery red head. She screamed at him on the street. He walked away. She confessed her deepest secrets and they made love beneath the sheets. However, the passion was an all-consuming one. And as fire always seems to do, it eats up everything in its path until all that’s left are cindered remains. Thus, the ordered narrative ends with Clementine stumbling home in a drunken stupor, her hair a now disturbing and damaged shade of orange. Faded, with her roots showing and Joel, like a father teenagers come to rebel against, waiting in the living room. Knowing the exact buttons to push, he does so and regrets it immediately.
But it’s too late. The damage is done and everything crashes around them.
However, the trick of the story isn’t that it simply goes in reverse, but that the viewer is aware that there are two simultaneous moments going on: the past and present crashing like waves on a rocky shore.
They signed up to forget each other but like in all relationships gone wrong, the harder you try to bury it, the faster it pops up to the surface. She does it first, the crazy impulsive chick that she is. This prompts him to follow suit. Heck, if she’s going to hurt him this way, he’s going to hurt her just as bad. Or at the very least, forget the pain as well. Thus, the true beginning of the movie is its end. The characters have no clue that they signed up to forget each other. And even if the audience does, after several viewings, its easy to get caught up in the ride wish them different choices. You watch Joel remember all the moments of anger and frustration, her temper, his criticisms, and initially, he feels justified in his decision. Until he begins to remember what initially attracted him. He was reminded of the spark, the adventure and the comfortable intimacy. He remembered their laughter on the streets of New York as elephants marched by.
It’s because we’ve all been there. Moments we wish could last forever if it were not for the fights, jealousy or demands that tarnished it. To jump back in time, watch ourselves from a distance, and build a bubble to protect that couple whose happiness we know would only be fleeting. But even with Clementine’s help, it is clear that there is no other choice but to accept the inevitable. That time will take it away.
Clementine on the other hand, is being seduced by one of the technicians who is also doing Joel’s memory erasure. He tries to repeat the lines and gifts that Joel gave from looking through his apartment, but even in her momentary glee, she looks at him with suspicion.
She is only with him because he reminds her of something she knew she loved but cannot remember.
What is so intriguing about the film is that it shows how there’s really no rationality to love.
The original script was set in the future, with Joel and Clem as being in their mid-sixties, yet continuously trying to forget each other, but only to return to each other again and again. In the beginning of the movie, it seems as though they are meeting for the first time and even in those first few minutes, the viewer has a clear picture of who they are and that they couldn’t be more different. But it’s clear, that it was love at first punch (in their conversation on the train, she punches him on the arm). As you watch them begin the relationship anew, a tape is mailed to them, which they listen to in the car where the Clementine from the past is talking about what she despised about Joel. Though the characters are unsure of whether it’s a joke or not, the viewer knows better.
The audience recalls the last moments of Joel’s memory: Back to that day on the beach. They met and she grabbed a piece of chicken from his plate, “like they were already lovers.” Dusk descends as Clementine plays on the beach, and moody, sullen Joel, for once, looks quite happy. The break into a house, and their most incompatible virtues are emphasized—Clementine’s brazen thrill-seeking ways, Joel’s cowardice and inhibitions. The memory is tinged with regret, as once again, things begin to fall apart. Their last moments together will soon be gone. They say their final goodbyes, as the house and memory crumbles away. She whispers in his ear, “Meet me in Montauk.”
Kate visits his apartment and hears Joel’s voice play over the tape deck. They realize that it was real. Standing in the hallway, they tell each other what couples, parents and the foolish always tell themselves: that maybe this time it could be different.
The scene ends with them playing on the snowy beach of Montauk.
Maybe it can be different.