Blessed Are the Forgetful

Memory erasure isn’t just a fantasy plot contrivance. It’s a real field of research and experimentation. The movie doesn’t delve much into the neuroscience behind it. (“It’s a place that does a thing!” says David Cross’s character of Lacuna). Yet in its own way, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is as much science fiction as films like Total Recall and Men in Black, both of which also feature memory erasure.

It’s the film’s nonlinear narrative, however, that has seen other recent tentpoles like Captain Marvel drawing comparisons to it. As faces blur out of existence in Joel’s precarious mind landscape, the old reliable race-against-time plot mechanism raises the stakes. We know these two people, Joel and Clementine, are in danger of losing each other forever simply because they will have no memory of each other once the erasure process is complete.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind leaves its characters in a place where they face an uncertain future at the end. Mary has quit her job at Lacuna, cleaning out her desk and loading up her car with boxes—some of which contain the liberated tapes and files of patients. Stan walks her out to the car and tells her he really likes her. He seems like such a nice guy; in another movie, maybe they’d end up together before the credits roll, giving us a happy ending whereby the trauma of Mary’s recovered knowledge and heartbreak is instantly healed.

As it is, she’s got bigger fish to fry. She mails Clementine and Joel their tapes and the two of them realize that the person they thought was an exciting new romantic prospect is actually someone with whom they already had an imperfect, at times difficult relationship history.

It’s not only big problems but also little annoying things that previously drove a wedge between them. Clementine’s funny tendency to pronounce the word “library,” like, “lie-berry,” embarrasses Joel. Hearing him complain about her on tape in one of his Lacuna sessions, she walks out on him, but he chases her down in the hallway of his apartment building.

“I can’t see anything that I don’t like about you right now,” he says.

“But you will,” Clementine retorts. “You will. You know, you will think of things, and I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me.”

Hearing this, Joel shrugs and says, “Okay.”

Realizing he accepts it, Clementine accepts it, too.

“Okay? Okay!”

The last image we see, before the film fades to white, is them running down the beach. Joel playfully scoops up sand onto Clementine, then the image hiccups and rewinds itself so that we see the same thing happen two more times. It’s a subtle way of leaving the viewer thinking about how people repeat themselves in their lives.

Thematically, this loops us back to a Nietzschean quote that Mary shared earlier in the film. “Blessed are the forgetful, for they get the better even of their blunders.” In the same scene, she had also shared the quote that gives the movie its title:

“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.”

This comes from a long poem called “Eloisa to Abelard” by Alexander Pope. The titular Eloisa, or Héloïse, was a French woman who fell in love with her teacher and married him, only to have him send her away to a convent to preserve his reputation. Living the life of a cloistered nun, she forgets the world and the world forgets her, but she also finds peace in not dwelling on the past.

A Realistic Love Story, Flaws Included

This might seem like a strange conflation of movie titles, but in a way, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind almost seems to be advocating a view of relationship longevity that’s similar to the one telegraphed in everyone’s favorite Christmas movie: Eyes Wide Shut. Clementine and Joel are mindful of the realities of a relationship, which aren’t always pretty. Their past was equal parts happiness and heartache and they know the future might entail more hardship for them. Like Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman’s characters, however, they come away “grateful that [they’ve] managed to survive through all [their] adventures.”

They’re also in the unique, perhaps enviable position of not being able to remember, let alone needing to forgive and forget. The human heart, of course, has a limited capacity for that.

In real life, you can’t erase your past with someone, but if you could, would it be worth it to sacrifice the good memories with the bad? And if people could start over with a clean slate, would they still be drawn together despite the same flaws? The movie leaves us with these questions.

On a personal note, I just got married last year, and one of my best friends from high school — who was always singing the praises of Michel Gondry and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to me — just got engaged this year. My friend and I are 37 and 38, respectively, and neither one of us thought we would ever get married.

For years, I couldn’t even watch movies like this, because if I did, I would probably just feel bitter about being alone. The film snob in me held an unspoken bias toward rom-coms, regarding them as light and fluffy confections like cotton candy with no real nutritional value for the cinephile’s brain. While other people were turning up at the theater on Friday night to see these slick studio products advertised by leaning couples on movie posters, you’d be more likely to find me lifting weights in a garage while listening to the Nine Inch Nails song, “Love Is Not Enough.”

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind sees the warts that our idealized notion of romance would rather ignore. “Adults are just this mess of sadness and phobias,” Mary observes. The movie recognizes that there’s more to love than a fleeting feeling, sold with hollow platitudes, air-brushed faces, and Hollywood endings.

Fifteen years later, it’s still the perfect romantic comedy for people who don’t normally like romantic comedies. You don’t need the excuse of a commercial holiday to rewatch this film. Any time of year will do. It’s one of the great ones.

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