This week, I missed two flights and found myself flying home from London on a British Airways flight — totally unplanned. I ditched the book I’d bought to read on the plane and vegged out with a recommended inflight movie. The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was the perfect nightcap to a life changing week in Croatia. Guided by the incomparable Dinesh Chauhan, a small group of us, all lovers of homeopathy, gathered to listen to our inner promptings, to train ourselves to see the peculiar in the ordinary, and to see patterns emerge, individually and collectively over walks, talks and dips in the Dalmatian sea.
Joel, a shy, socially awkward artist meets a girl whose hair color changes to match her moods, with the unlikely name Clementine when they each decide to take the train to Montauk for no particular reason. They’re sure that they’ve met before but can’t put a finger on it. She comes on to him, and the dance begins. She advances, he retreats; he courts her, she freaks out. He is the nicest man she has ever met. She wants a child. He is not ready. Fragments of memory mingle with their real-time relationship in a dreamy cinematic kaleidescope.
After a fight one night, Clementine storms out. The next day, Joel runs into her at a Barnes and Noble with a younger man, and she looks at him as if she has never met him. She greets him, not with the angry determination to squash a recent ex-lover to nothing, but the blank pleasantness of a total stranger. Joel is devastated. He turns to their friends, and accidentally discovers a notice from Lacuna, Inc. informing Clementine’s circle of friends that she has erased the memory of their relationship and no one should speak of Joel to her ever again.
Joel is distraught. He decides to put himself through the same procedure. The doctor explains that each of our memories is connected to an emotion; when the memory is erased, the emotion evaporates. Joel has to bag every item that reminds him of Clementine to prepare for the self-renewal procedure. It is Valentine’s Day, and the office is packed with patients clutching garbage bags filled with emotionally-charged objects, waiting for permanent relief from their pain.
That night, Joel sleeps on his bed in a helmet hitched to a computer as Lacuna’s top techie deletes memory after memory. As these flashbacks appear, flesh out with exquisite feeling and dissolve, Joel struggles to cling on to Clementine. In a mind-bending prism of past, present, and hopeful time, Clementine helps him to hide from the memory slayers, urging him to “go deep,” travel further into the past. He latches memories of her to memories that free-associate with the Clementine he knows. They make love under a quilt, while golden light streams through the orange-red hues of the quilt. Oh my darling, oh my darling, oh my darling Clementine…He superimposes Clementine and his babysitter in gogo boots. He recalls a sweet little girl who rescues him from bullies. Somewhere in the background is a bicycle that was present when they first met in Montauk.
The technician’s girlfriend, who works as Lacuna’s receptionist, shows up and between hitting delete, booze, and sex they end up dancing over Joel’s body.
Suddenly, they lose Joel. He is nowhere to be found on his virtual mind mapped on the screen. How’s that possible? How do they get him back? They’re in trouble. They call the boss.
Dr. Mierzwiak shows up and parks by the company van that has seen better days. The logo shows sign of wear: La una, it advertises.
The show must go on. Dr. injects something into Joel, and they capture him on their screen again. The receptionist confesses her crush on the doctor. He resists a little and they start kissing. The doctor’s wife shows up. She accuses him of being a demon. He has already had an affair with the receptionist and erased her memory when his wife found out about them.
Betrayed and upset, the receptionist decides to send the recorded tapes of the patients talking about why they want to undergo the drastic procedure with Lacuna before they dump their wounded selves. Joel and Clementine each receives a cassette tape. As they listen to each other pour out their broken hearts to the doctor, they realize that they are rewinding their romance, and getting a second chance at love. Each witnesses how the other sees him/her, perceptions and delusions filtered through their own fractured lenses.
I was first chilled by therapists/technicians of the psyche who provide a service their patients want, because it helps and because they can. I wanted to shout, “No, don’t do it. They’re bad guys!” Then came the even more chilly realization. We’re all in this game together — whether we’re looking for a little something to numb the pain as patients and clients, or on the other side offering salves as therapists, engineers and technologists of the mind, hoping to lift the pain of being human.
Yet deep memory can’t really be destroyed. Each ex-lover carries an image of their Other, who answers a deeper need. Joel grapples with Clementine’s intellectual shallowness (“she’s a magazine reader”) when in truth, he needs her spontaneous, uncalculating give-it-all-you’ve-got. When circumstances conspire to bring them into the same field, they fall in love all over again.
The dark side of this rom-com speaks to the same truth. When we forget, what is suppressed can also propel us toward the same objects of desire, into darkness. The receptionist still has an innocent crush on her boss, who takes advantage of her amnesia to deny her the choice to refuse.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” according to George Santayana who was echoing, perhaps in a moment of forgetfulness, Edmund Burke, who first wrote “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”
In the movie, as in life, resolution arrives when we look at our pain squarely in the face. Joel and Clementine decide to stay on and hear the other’s worst opinions of oneself. These accusations, half true, half twisted, lose their hold over them when each confronts the ugliness in the face. Love redeems. Mind-bending technologies, not so much.