Memory is a theme frequently used in media — how the past affects the future, who our memories make us — but Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Michel Gondry's 2004 sci-fi/romance with a somewhat cult-following, is one of the only films to explore memory as a commodity.
Eternal Sunshine is foremost a love story, focusing on Joel and Clementine (Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in typecast-defying roles), a man and woman who both choose to have their memories of one another erased after a break up, yet still manage to find each other and fall in love again.
Their story is told in jumbled timelines, and the viewer must make deductions about Joel, Clementine and the employees of Lacuna, the memory-erasing company. So deeply involved is the plot and cinematography that I had to see the film several times in order to glean one of it's most important messages: that memories are a basic human right, and something to be fought for.
This idea is apparent in the story of Joel and Clementine, but these two still end up together even after such convoluted experiences. Eternal Sunshine is a far cry from typical Hollywood, but there is something Hollywood-esque about it in that its romantic leads work everything out. What gets less attention, but is an even better example of the movie's message, is the subplot involving Kirsten Dunst and Tom Wilkinson.
Their story is told on the periphery of Joel and Clem, and in a way they are the inverse of the lead couple. Like the main characters, they had a romance that persisted even after a memory wipe. Wilkinson plays Dr. Mierzwiak, the brain behind Lacuna, and Dunst plays Mary, the receptionist clearly infatuated with him. But unlike the main plot, this could hardly be called a love story. Mierzwiak had an affair with Mary and then encouraged her to have her memory wiped so she could keep her job. The audience discovers the whole story along with Mary, and there is something repulsive about the way Mierzwiak treats her. When Mary finds out, she is not only heart-broken — she has lost a fundamental trust. She has been robbed.
Although Eternal Sunshine is not really a feminist movie, there are clear patterns of men abusing opportunities afforded by memory loss. Elijah Wood's character, Patrick, manipulates Clementine's past in order to seduce her in the present, taking advantage of her ignorance and his position. Stan, another employee played by Mark Ruffalo, wants to date Mary but continue working for Lacuna, the practice which caused her so much pain. And Mierzwiack, probably the greatest offender, treated Mary's memories as his own property, permanently changing her life so he wouldn't have to change his own.
In a different movie, Mary could have been the protagonist — or maybe she already is. In the end, she is the one who releases all the memory tapes. She is the one who recognizes that Dr. Mierzwiak is profiting off of people's desperation, and withholding the tools they need to live their lives. So while Eternal Sunshine is a love story, and a beautiful one at that, there is something incredibly strong about Mary rejecting Stan, rejecting Dr. Mierzwiak and rejecting everything that Lacuna represents. I watch her final scenes and choose to see a woman who had her most integral possessions taken from her, but still came back stronger than the man who thought he had the right to take them.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is available on Netflix.
What do you think Eternal Sunshine has to say about memory? Let me know in the comments below.