Structure and theme in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Eternal Sunshine uses non linear time to mirror the process of memory. Most of the action of the A story, Joel’s journey back to his love for Clementine, takes place inside his mind. The shift into the interior, non linear world occurs at 22 minutes, when he takes the sedative to render himself unconscious and only emerges again at 92 minutes, just 11 minutes from the end of the film.
Two distinct threads of time are at work in the film: the subjective, non linear time of Joel’s mind; and the objective linear time of the subplots – the B story love triangle between Stan, Mary and Howard; and the C story, Patrick’s duplicitous pursuit of Clementine.
Time in Joel’s mind works in reverse because the “procedure” works by burrowing from the exterior - the most recent memories - into the “emotional core” - the oldest - which, as Howard explains patiently to Joel, is then destroyed. The dramatic effect is of a reverse bittersweet American update of Ingmar Bergman’s harrowing Scenes From A Marriage (1973).
But Kaufman takes the conventional romantic paradigm, where love flowers and then has to fight to survive, and turns it on its head. Eternal Sunshine starts us with the corrosive ruin of a relationship and asks a different, but more intriguing question: how could these two people ever have loved each other in the first place? This is a question surely most of us have asked of our own failed relationships and those we have experienced at a remove. How many damaged former lovers have talked about wanting to forget someone? Haven’t we all? Kaufman’s twist on the love story is to say, Ok, what if you could? What would be the price? And the price, as Eternal Sunshine shows us, is unbearably high.
Kaufman takes us backwards through the fractured prism of memory to peel away the layers of emotional evisceration to show us not just that Joel and Clementine did love each other, but why. They were so nearly perfect for each other, almost but not quite counterbalancing each other’s excesses. The failure of the relationship is squarely on Joel’s shoulders; he could never reveal himself to Clementine, as she notes at one point in one of his memories, whereas she shared everything with him. All the pain we encounter in the film’s title sequence and immediately thereafter is the consequence of a failure of communication, or openness - and, by implication, of trust. In his internal journey back through time, Joel finally learns his lesson. At the last, he can tell Clementine how much he loves her – then she’s gone, erased from his memory forever. But his reconstruction of Clementine leaves him a slender lifeline to the real world where perhaps a second chance may be waiting.
Between 22 minutes and 92 minutes the narrative intercuts between the A story and the subplots – and, therefore, also between non linear and linear time. The A story is not only non linear; because it takes place in Joel’s mind, reality is also infinitely fluid, a quality that Kaufman and Gondry use extensively. Point of view is complex and multifaceted, shifting between objective and subjective. The more recent memories play as a direct reliving of experience, but as Joel’s journey moves backwards in time, the point of view becomes subjective as the narrative progresses and we access Joel’s experience of the event. Within the subjective point of view, the frame of reference in turn shifts as Joel moves from observer to commentator to participant and, finally, to actively influencing the action as the world of memory erodes around him. From 59 minutes, Clementine also becomes an independent entity, capable of influencing the direction of the action.
Holding the audience to a non linear storyline is, as noted, a narrative challenge, and with memories jumping across time amid shifting frames of reference, this is an issue Kaufman has to address. He does so ingeniously by using the colour of Clementine’s hair as a visual identifier. Clementine’s hair is green in the early stages of meeting and initial courtship; red when their relationship is at its most intense; orange to reflect the maturing of their relationship in its middle phase; and cool blue to reflect the failure of their relationship, now devoid of passion or outward love. It is interesting to note that Clementine’s hair is also red when, at 59 minutes, she segues from a function purely of Joel’s memory into an independent sentient being in Joel’s inner world – the point at which they begin to work as a team to escape the “erasure guys”, as Clementine calls Howard and his team.
We are also given a lot of information to help us. Howard explains the erasure process at length to Joel (and to us) at the beginning of the film’s second act (“Well, it technically is brain damage”). From that point on we understand exactly what we are seeing.
Which brings us to the shape of the framing narrative. Like Pulp Fiction, Eternal Sunshine uses an elliptical structure, opening with a prologue in present time, moving into the past at 16 minutes, and returning to the present of the prologue in Act 3. Despite the complexity of its treatment of time, the film is also framed around a clear three act structure and is driven by the journey of a single protagonist.
The inciting incident is Clem’s approach to Joel on the train back from Montauk at 7 minutes, an interaction that marked by the unsettling sense that these two strangers are not engaging as strangers should, particularly in Clementine’s case, and Joel knows what Clementine’s name means, which is an unlikely coincidence. The film is inviting to ask a question: what is really going on here? This the start of a relationship, but not any relationship. Clearly something very odd and disconcerting is going on. The fate of the new lovers – who turn out to be anything but - is what the film proceeds to explore.
The first act thereafter establishes the world of the story and deepens the mystery, including the revelation that Clementine has erased Joel. This prompts the first act turning point at 28 minutes, when Joel, reacting out of pain and loss, impetuously decides to erase Clementine. The first half of the second act follows a vengeful and bitter Joel into his memories of the destructive unhappiness of the late phase relationship, but as the erasure process takes him further back in time, he encounters happier memories and it becomes obvious to him and us that his lack of communication and trust was the main problem in their relationship.
This reaches tipping point at 54 minutes in a memory of Joel and Clementine lying on the ice looking up at the stars. “I could die right now,” he tells her. “I’m exactly where I want to be.” And then, at that moment of pure happiness, she’s gone, erased. Now Joel realises his loss and screams out to stop the process. This is the film’s Midpoint. From this point, Joel’s goal is to keep his remaining memories of Clementine. Joel now understands that what he wanted was not at all what he really needed, but now he has to face the consequences of his actions.
His desperate attempts to preserve his memories of Clementine occupy the second half of Act 2. The stakes are raised significantly at 57minutes when he realises that Patrick is manipulating Clementine by using his memories and artefacts and he faces not only losing his memory of Clem forever, but also the real Clem. The path to reconciliation of their love is finalised by Clem’s transformation into an independent consciousness at this juncture. Now they work as the team they could have been but never were, hiding in Joel’s childhood, with a power reversal thrown in as Clementine starts to direct their line of action. We can see the couple as they could be at their best – because, finally, Joel is telling Clem how he feels.
But this isn’t the real world - this is just the construction of a mind. Somehow, we know, Joel has to connect the two for the love story to resolve with the flesh and blood Clementine in the objective world, who has by now also worked out that something is very wrong with Patrick. Remember me, Clementine tells Joel, try your best.
At 66 minutes, however, Kaufman introduces a major dramatic complication that raises the stakes significantly: Howard, Joel’s most formidable antagonist, arrives at the apartment. Stan was just a processor, lacking the deadly skills to track down Joel and Clementine “off map”. Howard, however, is the expert, a deadly cerebral assassin. With Howard hunting them, Joel and Clementine can no longer hide in childhood memories. Clementine immediately disappears, and the world of childhood turns to ruin around Joel.
The second act turning point comes at 84 minutes with Joel’s recognition that he has reached his first memory of Clementine, and therefore in backwards progression also his last – their meeting as two out of place misfits at a winter beach party. There is now nowhere to run. The memory shifts from a direct remembering with commentary to Joel and Clementine as independent characters in the action. At last Joel is able to express his love for her, but they both know the end is very near. What can we do, she asks? Resigned, he replies, “Just enjoy it.” He has changed almost beyond recognition from the depressive, repressed man we first met. When he says, “I love you” we know he means it with all his heart, free of emotional baggage for the first time. The last memory disintegrates around them and she’s gone. Howard has won.
Or has he? Joel wakes up with no memory. But across time and worlds love has left a lifeline – Clementine’s last words as she “died”: “meet me in Montauk.” Their meeting in the prologue, with impeccable non linear logic, is explained. The framing narrative is now complete, and the story can move forward into the crisis and resolution in objective, linear time.
At this point the B story climax – Mary’s reaction to discovering the truth about her relationship and her ransacking of the office files – fuses into the one narrative stream with the A story (the C story having already resolved when Clementine ditches Patrick). The narrative completes the ellipse back to prologue and Mary’s mailing out of the files and tapes precipitates the A story third act crisis when Clementine plays the tape where she forthrightly describes why she wants Joel erased. Joel throws her out of the car, but love is strong enough for her to seek him out at his apartment, where she hears his tape. They have now said every possible hurtful thing to each other. No writer could frame a sterner test for love – but, in the resolution, it is one they pass. Maybe. There are no certainties and no guarantees. The film is nonetheless very clear in its central idea in the resolution – without love we are nothing. Every character in the film is looking for love; all are lost and unhappy without it. Love brings meaning to our lives.
There is another idea at work in this thematically rich film, qualified but optimistic nonetheless: that with the pleasure comes the pain, and that they are one and the same. Love asks us to risk everything, but we have everything to gain. Joel and Clementine, knowing what may happen, take the risk again because they know that love is worth it; and we hope that Joel has emerged a more complete man from his ordeal. What we don’t see is whether or not he can show it. Perhaps also Kaufman is saying, if you have a second chance, grasp it firmly with both hands - and remember: love is about sharing your lives.
Romantic comedies riff variations on the same essential idea – that love will prevail. In Eternal Sunshine, Kaufman says love is everything, and it may prevail. If we work hard at it. Interestingly, despite the equivocation, there is an old fashioned romanticism at work in the story – love for Joel and Clementine is more profound than memory. It’s still there after the “procedure” – chemical, cosmic, whatever, even the erasure of memory can’t completely destroy it. In the end, Joel and Clementine are meant for each other. They just have to make it work this time.