Movie love stories are about memory, mostly. Think of Love Story, Annie Hall… even Titanic is about a recollected love affair. Why? Because we’re idiots, frankly. Most people can’t go five minutes without fondly remembering the previous four. In love, it’s times a million. Are we wrong? In what we remember: yes. But misremembering is part of what makes us human. If we all thought the same, we’d be ants. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind asks the age-old question: if you had your life to live over, would you live it differently? Its characters decide they wouldn’t. Their bad memories fade… Who’s to say what makes a “bad” memory anyway.
Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet play star cross’d lovers named Joel and Clementine. Joel is an introvert and Clementine is something like a female Jim Carrey. They meet at a beach party. There follows (in the immortal words of The Shipping News) “a month of fiery happiness, then six kinked years of suffering” (only the month is more like a year and the years are more like six months). They break-up. Clementine has her memory of Joel erased via a quirky new surgical procedure, and when Joel discovers what Clementine has done, he (peevishly) does the same… Only, half-way through his procedure, Joel realizes he doesn’t want to forget.
There’s the way an infinite number of monkeys working at an infinite number of type-writers would have written this, and then there’s Charlie Kaufman’s way (N.B. the monkeys would have made it simpler). Kaufman has a way of taking fairly original concepts to begin with, and then making them so fiendishly original that even with a map and set of written instructions as what he’s up to, you’re still left scratching your head. Try this: Eternal Sunshine starts near the end, skips to the beginning, back-tracks to the middle then ends where it began. Got that? It isn’t as complicated as it sounds in practice, but it ain’t Adam Sandler’s Click, either.
The best way to approach the movie is to give in to it. Let go your hold… so to speak. The mess helps. We all know (secretly) our memories are jumbled, that we remember bits of things, in the wrong order; we each carry our own mosaic. I suppose I didn’t mention Annie Hall by accident. The movie is reminiscent of Annie Hall’s la-di-da structure; careening from one memory to the next. It doesn’t have Annie Hall’s humour, but it’s got Annie Hall’s fearlessness when it comes to invention, and its guiding philosophy (to quote Woody Allen: “…relationships; y’know, they’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, and… but, uh, I guess we keep goin’ through it because, uh, most of us… need the eggs.”)
Kate Winslet is (it’s true) irritating at times as Clementine, but it’s the character she’s playing, not the actress. Clementine is the wild, wily heart of the movie. She isn’t easy to love, but she needs it. When Joel and Clementine come together it’s like she’s the flame and he’s the candle. Jim Carrey isn’t someone you’d think of as a steadying influence, but Joel’s presence on screen shows the quality of Carrey’s acting. He calms down in Eternal Sunshine. Maybe he should play Joel in real-life…
Love is best remembered because we’re poor judges of happiness when it’s happening to us. Human beings can register elation… the orgasmic high, but we have a tough time with anything that doesn’t arrive in a blaze. That’s why we need love stories; to remind us what love is. Because it isn’t meeting; it isn’t death; it’s the in-between, the nights on the sofa. Love is when (as Joel says) “[you’re] exactly where [you] want to be”. And so often we misunderstand. There’s an old joke: one man says to the other, “Have you learned from your mistakes?” The other man says, “Yes, I could repeat them all exactly.” Eternal Sunshine says: be careful what you call a mistake.