I’m aware that this journal entry is not between 250 and 500 words. Still, I love this movie, so I apologize for nothing (sorry though).
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is, in short, a film about loneliness. Michael Gondry’s direction creates a film about two characters, Joel Barish and Clementine Kruczynski, who struggle with their immense solidarity both together and apart. As we witness the deterioration of their relationship in a backwards chronological fashion, we see Clementine’s personality “applied in a paste” in her hair, bright green to represent life, clean red to represent intense passion, dirty red to represent faded passion, and a deep blue to symbolize loss and sadness. We see Joel go from feeling nothing to feeling happy to feeling lost, and eventually realizing that that nothingness he felt before was a form of aloneness. But most importantly, we see two characters experience genuine human connection, and how that connection changes both of them permanently.
Clementine Kruczynski, named after a dead past love from the folk song “Oh My Darling Clementine,” desperately tries to live life to the fullest by trying not to be bored for even a single second. The manic pixie dream girl persona that she creates makes her feel alienated by men who see her as simply a concept, a savior to take them away from the mundane. Suitors like Patrick, though they might say the right things and buy her the right trinkets, approach her with a reverence that cannot also include the genuine love she wants. She just want to feel beautiful, and to believe herself to be worthy of an emotion deeper than reverence. She seeks validation from others because she is unable to get it from herself, and uses alcohol as a way to drown this fear and loneliness.
Joel Barish is, at least at face value, a more conventionally lonely person. He often confides in a journal rather than with the people around him because he believes himself to be boring and uninteresting. Despite living with Naomi and having supportive friends, Joel finds that he has spent his entire life feeling immensely alone, drowning in his own thoughts and struggling with not having the courage to chase after the things he wants. He sits in a train and draws a sketch of himself and Clem, with shadows of footsteps making a beeline towards her because he clearly wants to approach her, but when she comes to him instead, he clams up and almost immediately pushes her away out of fear.
Chronologically speaking, the earliest memory in Joel’s mind is of him and Clementine as children shortly after he hammers a bird out of peer pressure. One bullied and one projecting her insecurities on an ugly girl doll, the two characters are able to feel unalone in a memory that never truly existed. The bare forms that they take in this memory make it easier for the audience to understand their more complex interactions as they get older.
When they first meet each other at the beach, Clementine’s immediate familiarity when she takes Joel’s chicken makes him feel as though, despite having sat so far away from all his friends, there was someone who could truly relate to him. Joel’s reservations actually make Clementine feel more comfortable, as Joel doesn’t seem to be attracted to Clementine just because he feels as though she would make him “feel alive.” Joel’s trepidation and cowardice, which Clementine chastises, is really one of the main reasons she falls in love with him. Her hair color at this point, a bright, healthy shade of green, is representative of the life and animation that their relationship promises. For the first time in their lives, neither of them feels alone.
Clementine doesn’t drink, and nor does Joel write in his journal, in the time where their relationship is healthy and passionate. They watch movies together or run across the frozen Charles. They hike and sit on the couch reading and share childhood insecurities, reveling in the love that they feel for each other, represented by the bright, fiery red of Clem’s hair. These memories are edited in the film to jump and flit from one to another to represent how, more so than each individual memory, these exist in Joel’s mind as simple happy experiences.
As they spend more and more time together, however, Clementine’s and Joel’s insecurities take hold, and they slowly lose touch with their original passions. Clementine once again gets insecure as she realizes Joel doesn’t see her as a fit mother, convincing her that she might be nothing more than a concept to her despite everything that has convinced her otherwise. Joel, once again convinced that he doesn’t have much interesting to say, dives back into his journal and writes in silence while Clem drinks. Joel’s notebook records his meal at a Chinese restaurant, an image that directly transitions to his actual meal to represent how immediately Joel’s consciousness shifts to his journal rather than to conversation with Clem. At the Chinese restaurant, Joel and Clem sit feet from each other, eating together but feeling completely alone.
As Joel’s memories get erased, there is a transition from blank loss of memory to specifically choreographed memory loss. When he loses the memories of Clementine at the flea market, his entire conscious fades, and he lets go of the memory quite easily, easily achieved by Gondry’s green-screen fade-out affect. However, as Joel remembers more and more of Clementine’s qualities that he eventually began taking for granted, his memory loss becomes more of a progressive experience. In his conversation with Clementine at the library, the book spines are slowly whited out until all his memory is is of him and Clementine, alone, having a conversation that they never had in the memory itself. In his first interaction with Clementine at George and Ruth’s house, his memory literally falls to pieces around him, symbolizing the memory loss combined with his world metaphorically falling apart. Like Howard says before he wipes Joel’s brain, each memory has a core, the destruction of which causes the degradation of the entire memory. For Joel, the core of each of these memories is Clementine.
Clementine and Joel both erase their memories because, after finally discovering what it is to be unalone for the first time in their lives, they can’t stand the prospect of going back to solitude. Despite the misery the audience sees (quite literally in terms of Clementine’s blue hair) them so obviously feel when they have their memories erased, to Clem and Joel, this sadness and depression is closer to normalcy than active pain. When they meet each other and once again feel that passion, Gondry is able to depict human irrationality in the face of genuine connection. Despite having their memories erased, neither Joel nor Clementine forget this genuine connection. Joel goes back to Montauk beach after being impulsive for the first and only time in the film, whereas Clementine seems to understand that despite saying and doing all the same things, Patrick cannot make the same emotional connection with her as Joel can.
Because of the dream and memory state that Joel lives in for a majority of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Gondry is able to manipulate and edit the film to better fit emotional states. Joel’s tiny self sitting under the table is reminiscent of powerless and lonely he feels, desperate for any form of attention whatsoever. The lights turning off as he leaves the library are a perfect representation of how dread feels, and are an almost unnoticeable transition to his return to his friend’s living room. Brief flashes of illogical moments; a tower of salt-shakers and books building itself up backwards, Joel completely buried in sand and surrounded by broken bookshelves and dilapidated plane parts, symbolically allow Gondry to describe Joel’s mind state rather than what actually happens to him. Gondry’s firm grasp on the human condition and elaborately planned shots help create an immensely powerful depiction of two incredibly lonely people and their connection to one another.