In our Film Swap Challenge series, our reviewers assign each other films to write about: films that one writer enjoys or values, and the other writer hasn’t seen – and which might be slightly out of their comfort zone! Here, Amy Walker is challenged to write about Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind by Dave Bond.
I had a vague idea of what this film was about from hearing a little of it in passing over the years. I’d been told that it was some of Jim Carrey’s best work outside of comedy, and it involved the manipulation of memories. I suppose going in knowing that tiny bit of info could have coloured the experience slightly for me, as during the first scenes of the film I was wondering in this was the first time that Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) were falling in love, or if this was them rediscovering each other. Whilst this turned out to be the latter, I don’t think that trying to figure this out really altered the film for me, as there wasn’t really a big mystery to uncover here.
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A lot of times where films tell their stories in reverse, or mess with the characters’ perception of memory and reality, it’s often to withhold some piece of information from the audience too – to provide a big ‘aha’ moment at the conclusion. This, instead, was more about the journey and the characters than a central mystery. We get given all of the information about what’s happening fairly early on. In the scene in which Joel is telling his friends that Clementine is acting like she doesn’t know him following their most recent fight, it’s revealed to be because of her memory wipe in the very same scene. It’s not about figuring things out, it’s about seeing a love story play out.
Once Joel makes the decision to undergo a similar procedure to forget Clementine, the main thrust of the narrative takes over, and we spend a good deal of the runtime of the film inside Joel’s memories as he experiences them being erased one at a time. We start at the latest memories first, getting to see a relationship that’s turned toxic, where those involved can barely stand each other. This makes us sympathise with Joel, makes us understand why he’s choosing to forget. But as he moves backwards and gets to see some of the happier memories Joel begins to change his mind, and engages in a fight to hide some kind of memory of Clementine away where it won’t be erased.
In the outside world, during Joel’s procedure, we get to see two other stories that show some of the more negative sides of this memory wipe technique. In one we learn that one of the engineers who performs the wipes, Patrick (Elijah Wood), has stolen all of the things that Joel brought into the company and is using them to worm his way into Clementine’s life. He’s using Joel’s own past to try and fabricate love between him and Clementine. In addition to this we discover that the receptionist for Lacuna has had her memories wiped to do away with her affair with her boss.
Through these three interconnecting narratives the film seems to be making the point that your memories are important, and that if you get rid of them you’d just make things worse. Bad memories are often tied in with good ones, and that doing away with one can lose another. They help to make you who you are because you can learn from mistakes in your past, but without them you could be doomed to repeat your failures over again. It seems to be trying to send the message that good can come out of bad things, even if you don’t think so in the moment.
That being said, I’m not entirely sure how to feel about the relationship between the two leads. It’s very clear that they’d not just lost the love between themselves, but that they were quite toxic for each other. They seem to be very different people, and to bring out the worst in each other. By the end of the film they’ve reconnected, and know that they’ve been through this procedure and that they fell out of love, but they don’t remember it. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to want them to be back together or not because there’s nothing to say they won’t spiral into a destructive relationship all over again.
I guess that we’re not supposed to think about that, that the film is instead supposed to be considered optimistic, but I couldn’t help but get a sense of depression from the events too. I think different people will get different things from Joel and Clementine’s story, and that it will probably depend on your own experiences with love and relationships.
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The film itself is very well put together, and despite playing with the chronology of events and jumping around inside Joel’s memories you don’t feel lost in the narrative at all, which is impressive. There are a number of great set pieces too that jump out as incredibly well produced. I particularly liked the scene where Joel walks out of the bookshop from his story and into his friend’s house in one shot, with the shop fading into the darkened room in the background. I don’t know if this was all done on a singular connected set or with special effects, but the result was very good, and there are a number of fun moments like this throughout.
Overall I was impressed with the film, though was left feeling somewhat emotionally drained by it. It might be a love story, but I’m not sure I could call it a positive story. I’m glad, however, that I’ve finally been able to see it.