Great Scenes: Final memories erased in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

If I were asked to name my favorite movie of all time, I’d have a lot of candidates from which to pick.

I might go with pop crime masterpiece Goodfellas, which was my reflex answer to that question for years. Or with the pinnacle of romantic comedies, Moonstruck. I might look to one of my all-time favorite filmmakers, Woody Allen, and choose Annie Hall or Hannah and Her Sisters. Or I might go with another of them, and choose Steven Spielberg’s throwback adventure masterpiece Raiders of the Lost Ark. Wes Anderson has crafted two films that could easily fill the slot, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums.

Depending on my mood, and how recently I’d seen the films, any one of those movies could be my favorite ever.

But deep down, when I really search myself for the answer, I keep coming back to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

(Spoilers below… read only if you’ve seen the film)

Director Michel Gondry and writer Charlie Kaufman delivered a film that I find perfect on every level. That’s all the more impressive because it’s truly a tightrope walk, blending science fiction and absurdism with the brutal realities of romantic relationships. It could, and probably should, be an ambitious failure. Instead it’s a bone fide masterpiece.

I’m floored by the complicated structure of Kaufman’s script. By setting almost the entire film inside Joel’s memories as they’re being erased, Kaufman delivers crucial backstory while allowing Joel (as well as his projection of Clementine) to comment on what’s happening. This allows the film to work simultaneously as a specific examination of a doomed relationship and a general examination of memory, loss and regret.

Even more impressive is Kaufman’s peerless touch with realistic dialogue and situations. As clever and thought-provoking as this film is, there isn’t a moment in it that feels scripted. The humor is the sort that bubbles up in everyday conversation while the halting stabs at connection and reconciliation feel painfully true — more lived than acted. Kaufman doesn’t deserve all the credit, of course… Michel Gondry, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet (not to mention a strong supporting cast) are flawless.

Gondry, in particular, manages to temper Kaufman’s wilder and more cynical side. The screenplay originally ended many years later than the events of the film, with Joel and Clementine as an old couple who continue to erase their memories of each other time and time again. Gondry axed that pessimistic finale for the more hopeful one in the film. Actually, ‘hopeful’ might be the wrong word… we’re not led to believe Joel and Clementine will live happily ever after, just that they’ve made a decision that love is worth the pain it can cause.

Today’s scene is the film’s emotional climax (though the whole thing could be looked at as an emotional climax, if you ask me). It’s also the scene that inspired the title of my blog.

The process of erasing Joel’s memories of Clementine is nearly complete… the technicians have worked all the way back to his memory of their first meeting. On a beach in Montauk, they chat for a bit and then she leads him down the shore to an empty house. She breaks in and starts searching for alcohol. Joel is nervous and afraid… he’s not used to this sort of dangerous spontaneity. He is drawn to Clementine, but the attraction can’t conquer his fears. He flees.

The memory dissolves as he’s living it, with another of those beautiful visual metaphors Gondry sprinkles throughout the film. The house begins to collapse around them, the ocean water rises to their feet. And Joel and his remembered Clementine share a final moment before the memory is relegated to oblivion. “Meet me in Montauk,” she whispers, planting a seed that leads to their reintroduction.

Finally, on the ride home, Joel sits in the back seat while his friends chat in the front. It’s a perfect snapshot of one of those moments when you’re pulled back into your regular life after experiencing something extraordinary. His friend asks about the pretty stranger he was talking to on the beach.

“Just a girl,” Joel says.

Yeah… this is my favorite movie.

5 thoughts on “Great Scenes: Final memories erased in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

  1. Amy says:

    “What do we do?”
    “Enjoy it.”

    Yeah… definitely solid favorite material here. This scene is spectacular, both in its enormity and its simplicity. You’re absolutely right that Gondry and company are walking the most precarious of tight ropes, and its their fearlessness in approaching that task that most inspires me. This is not a cautious film; it’s a bold one.

    And your analysis of it is wonderful.

  2. Alan says:

    I admire your choice! Definitely a great film…and one of my favorite romances of all time! 🙂

  3. pegclifton says:

    I don’t think I ever fully appreciated this movie until now. As Amy said, your analysis was wonderful, and after reading it and watching the clip, I find I’m a little teary. It’s hard to pick one’s favorite movie, so many great films to choose from, I think you’ve chosen a special one. I’m a huge fan of Kate Winslet and not such a fan of Jim Carrey, but in this movie he was great.

  4. Amy says:

    You’ve just earned a new fan for Spotless! 🙂 Well-done, you.

  5. dannyvuart says:

    I find it odd that some video stores would catorize this under romantic comedies. It is simply pure and profound romance. It’s a unique movie that makes you either want to fall in love instantly or never fall in love again. It is that poignant, profound, and powerful. There are scenes that I’ve seen dozens of times over and over again. And the magical soundtrack subconciously allures your audible senses. There are some flaws with the movie if you over analyze it and break it down like I did. But the countless positives greatly outweigh the very few negatives.

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