There are very few movies, in this or any other generation, that tell the truth about love: the honest-to-life joys, vulnerabilities, and devastations that follow from commitment to another person. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is such a movie. It is terrific; it is welcome and indeed long overdue.
Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) play a couple whose relationship has imploded. After their breakup, they–separately–seek the help of Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), who has invented a technology that can erase undesired memories. Mierzwiak’s Lacuna Incorporated promises to sanitize their minds of all memories of their partner. As Joel undergoes the procedure, the film enters his mind and watches the memories being erased–and watches Joel come to realize that erasing the sadnesses of the relationship will destroy all of its joyful memories as well. Joel–within his mind–rebels, and decides to try to outwit Mierzwiak and his team of intrepid assistants.
The plot becomes twisty, so I will say nothing further about it except that it is intelligent, and shows a deep understanding of the way people really think and feel. Carrey and Winslet are touching and believable; Wilkinson is solid and likable as the well-intentioned man of science; a subplot involving his assistants–played by Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, and Elijah Wood–is well woven into the main story and raises profound issues of its own.
The film’s title comes from a poem by Alexander Pope: “How happy is the blameless Vestal’s lot! / The world forgetting, by the world forgot. / Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! / Each pray’r accepted and each wish resign’d.” The poem is about the great medieval love story of Heloise and Abelard, told in Heloise’s voice, and its narrator admits that she, in truth, desires another destiny: “Far other dreams my erring soul employ, / Far other raptures, of unholy joy.” The word “unholy” is used here in the sense of terrestrial and quotidian, as opposed to specifically religious. But the point of this film is that the quest for human love, the cherishing of it–in the face of all the pain it entails–is sacred and sanctified. It is a worthy desire.
The movie is remarkable not just for its insight into the psyche and human relationships but also for its very inventive visual style: It is a marvel to look at, a continually surprising panorama of stages in the lives of two people. I predict that most viewers will see themselves in this story at various points: sometimes uncomfortably. The movie’s genre may be science fiction, but its expertise is in human fact.