Why 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' is a timeless film

Updated - April 06, 2019 01:41 pm IST

Published - April 05, 2019 09:35 pm IST

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

For a medium that thrives on the artistic compression of time, it baffles me that “timeless” is the adjective of choice used to describe the finest of cinema. The term suggests that great movies will remain the same – great – across eras, civilizations, cultures. That is, the films will be of a single stature, irrespective of when they are viewed. But a truly timeless film doesn’t disregard time. It expands – and succumbs to the glorious vagaries of – time. Like memories, the best of films count on time to humanize, and personalise, their long-term worth.

Power of perspective

Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, written by Charlie Kaufman, epitomises this shape-shifting power of perspective. When I first watched this film in 2004, I was in long-distance puppy love. It was my first – and I hoped, last – romantic relationship. Heartbreak was still an alien concept. Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine’s (Kate Winslet) story of resorting to a memory-erasing procedure to move on from one another, then, became an allegory for my perception of physical distance. In my head, the idea of two lovers repeatedly gravitating towards each other despite the promise of doomed fate morphed into the tale of a desperate couple repeatedly visiting each other to sustain their slender shot at togetherness. The life-cycle of Joel and Clementine’s companionship reflected our fleeting bouts of intense proximity; there were ups, downs, newness, nowness. Lacuna Inc.’s memory-erasing procedure – and Joel’s brain battling to retain his happy memories with Clementine – stood for the time we spent away from one another in faraway lands, battling hard to not forget each other, while defying the distractions of growing up. But every new experience apart erased a little more of our oldness together.

A fragile heart

When I rewatched the film in 2009, the heart was fragile. I had by then acquainted myself with the inevitability of sunshine being – unfailingly, eternally – followed by sunset. I was about to rekindle an old romance a year after it first imploded. A year of forgetting, but not forgetting enough. Here, Joel’s inability to get over Clementine resonated for a different reason: The comfort of familiarity transcending the irrationality of remembrance. I thought the film was designed to remind us of the elastic umbilical cord that connects bitter lovers; the thin line separating birth from rebirth was defined by the symbiotic equation between time elapsed and thoughts eroded. Lacuna Inc is shown to disintegrate, which meant that another breakup would come with the rider of having to remember – and perhaps resent – each other. Would they, like us, keep finding one another till there was nothing left to find? A year later, we separated. I vowed to wipe out every memory of the movie from my pained mind.

Processing heartbreak

In 2019, I watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with the most spotted mind possible. The heart is no more a vital organ. By now I have lived enough to recognise that the film wants us to scoff at its wishful mentality. It counts on us knowing enough hurt to conclude that self-preservation is not a reversible condition. That memories are not tangible images but intangible emotions. That closure is the mind’s license to process heartbreak. Joel lets Clementine invade his obscure childhood memories so that he can preserve some of his residual feelings. To remember her, he runs the risk of forgetting himself – the song his mother hums, the playground bullies, those rainy evenings. Kaufman’s script, which culminates in the saddest happy ending ever written, in fact hints at the all-encompassing penetration of love.

Love cannot, and does not, exist in isolation. If I were to erase partners from my memory, I’d not just be deleting spaces and private moments. I’d be ripping out fundamental pages from my book of evolution. I’d be choosing to dilute my understanding of Mumbai, the crowded streets that made us hold hands, the shared loneliness of my bedrooms, the foods I’ve grown to cherish, the snowy European graveyards in which I’ve pined, the music that shaped me, the words that comforted me, and most significantly, the movies that influenced the way I think. By abolishing heartbreak, I’d be dimming the sunsets that made me empathise with Joel’s inability to meet his lovers’ eyes. And so, here I am, writing, again, about a film that I could not remember to forget.

Waiting for resolution

In a recent Vanity Fair profile marking its 15-year anniversary, director Michel Gondry and Jim Carrey spoke fondly about their love-hate relationship on the sets of the production. They discuss one of the most extraordinary films of the 21st century rather ordinarily, like a couple citing the quirky wheres and the hows of their first meeting – the chandelier at the party, her hair colour – when asked about why they fell in love. They remember the physicality of making the film, but remain curiously aloof about its psychology. Carrey hasn’t seen it since 2004. Gondry even admits: “The last time I watched it, I didn’t understand anything.” Time, being the keyword. In a way, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is his Clementine. And Gondry is waiting on a windy platform, wondering why this mysterious blue-haired girl in an orange hoodie seems...familiar. Maybe he has forgotten to remember her. Maybe he – we – never really left Montauk.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.