With Feb. 14 on the horizon, single and attached folks alike are turning to pieces of romance-themed entertainment to get in the Valentine's Day mood. And whether it’s through classic rom-coms like When Harry Met Sally or modern kink films like Secretary, everyone has his or her preference for what's considered the best of the bunch. But I’m here to offer a perspective on a film that, while it revolves around the story of a couple, may not be what pops into most people’s heads when they think of “romance:" Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The 2004 drama is an incredibly romantic film that should be watched this Valentine’s Day, but really, also on any day you happen to feel frustrated with relationships and love.
Sure, it’s a bit of an unusual choice; after all, the film centers on the idea of using technology to forget relationships and purge any memories of an ex from your brain. But while Michel Gondry’s kooky, quirky film might spend a lot of time pointing out how much relationships can hurt us, it’s actually quite hopeful, optimistic, and, most importantly, realistic in how it represents love and romance. 12-year-old spoilers ahead!
In Eternal Sunshine, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet star as the melancholy Joel and eccentric Clementine, respectively. After a tumultuous relationship that ends in heartbreak, the former couple subject themselves to a futuristic brain procedure that erases each person from the other's memory. The film is a narrative jigsaw puzzle, not told in linear, or even entirely clear, fashion; memories are presented out of chronological order, and characters aren’t always shown as having a strong grasp on their own realities. It can be a confusing watch for a first-time viewer, but it reflects the reality that relationships aren’t always understandable or predictable.
The story begins on Valentine’s Day, 2004, when glum Joel declares, in a common sentiment among those going solo on Feb. 14, “Today is a holiday invented by greeting card companies to make people feel like crap.” While ditching work to head to Montauk in the dead of winter, he meets Clementine, striking up a conversation on the train home. But while this moment seems like a start of a relationship, viewers soon learn it's bit more complicated than that; throughout the film, Joel and Clementine’s love story is told through the erasure of his memories of her, a procedure Clementine had already gone through. His regret at taking part in the procedure becomes a battle against time as he drags his memories of her throughout his psyche in an attempt to save them.
Eventually, Joel and Clementine are truly erased from one another’s memories, but viewers learn that the moment at the beginning of the film was actually their second introduction. And, after going through all the trouble of erasing each other, they still meet again and follow through on their mutual attraction. It might be some sort of commentary on destiny; perhaps soulmates truly exist. Maybe once the universe considers two people to be destined to be together, nothing, not even their own choices or the actual elimination of their very feelings for each other, can keep them apart.
What I’ve always loved about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is its refusal to shy away from how hard relationships can be. A sex-ed teacher that I had in high school imparted on me one of the most poignant lessons that I still try to remember to this day: relationships are work. They’re joyous, wonderful, uplifting, and rewarding, but they’re also maddening, frustrating, sad, and difficult, and it takes effort to maintain them. Chemistry exists, but no couple will experience a vacuum of perfection. Even the best relationships require both individuals' hardest efforts.
Whether or not Joel and Clementine are meant to be in Eternal Sunshine is a less important question than if their relationship is worth working for. Despite their flaws, frustrations, and the harm they cause each other, the duo magically find each other again, but not without suffering; as Joel says in the bookstore where Clementine works, “It would be different, if we could just give it another go-round" — to which Clementine replies, “Remember me. Try your best; maybe we can.” (This is also the same scene in which Clementine amazingly rejects the idea of the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl by declaring, “Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a f*cked-up girl who’s looking for my own piece of mind; don’t assign me yours” — but that's a point for another essay.)
And so, they start over. There's no guarantee that their relationship will work out, but that's not the point. It's the movie's acceptance of the often painful reality of relationships that makes Eternal Sunshine one of the more romantic films out there. As I sat down to write this piece, I remembered that I had first seen the movie in the theater with my husband, then boyfriend, back in 2004, early in our relationship. During the awkward dinner we had after watching the movie, we sat in silence as we pondered Joel and Clementine’s predicament. Like them, we loved each other, but would our relationship be as hard as theirs? Would we frustrate one another, make each other feel awful, drive one another insane? Coming up on 13 years together this month, and five years married, the answer is a blunt yes, but it’s also a “yes, but.” Yes, but it’s worth it. Yes, but if you love a person, the challenges mean nothing. Yes, but the hard parts are what make the good parts even better.
My husband and I had a fight yesterday, and today, I’m recalling Eternal Sunshine’s use of this Nietzche quotation: “Blessed are the forgetful, for they get the better even of their blunders.” To put it simply, ignorance is bliss. But when Joel and Clementine begin again, they already know their issues with one another and can predict just how hard it will be when they reunite, yet they still say OK to giving it another go. Most typical romantic movies show flawless relationships, immediate chemistry, and happy ever afters, but while they might make for solid entertainment, they also contribute to the disappointment we feel when relationships in our own lives don't work out. But Eternal Sunshine tells you flat out that love is hard, and that there will be tough times. Watching this movie tell all the truths of love will make your own relationship much easier and sweeter, and in the end, more worth your efforts. That's my idea of romance.
Images: Focus Features