Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a 2004 American romantic science fiction comedy-drama film written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Michel Gondry. The film was praised by critics at its release, and in 2016 it was ranked #6 on the BBC’s list of the 100 best films of the 21st century, compiled from a survey of 177 film critics.
The film tells the story of the soft-spoken and timid Joel (played by Jim Carrey), who one day meets the outgoing and whimsical Clementine (played by Kate Winslet) on a train from Montauk, New York. They are immediately drawn to each other, in spite of their contrasting personalities, and begin a romantic relationship. Although they do not remember it, Joel and Clementine are, in fact, former lovers, who after falling out of love decided to undergo a procedure to erase all their memories of each other. Much of the film takes place in Joel’s mind, during the memory erasure procedure. Joel finds himself revisiting his memories of Clementine in reverse, starting from the disintegration of their relationship to the day he had first met her at a beach house in Montauk. Reliving the happy memories of their relationship makes Joel remember why he loved her in the first place. His love for her awakens anew, and he wishes to stop the procedure, but it cannot be undone. As the last memory, of when they first met, disintegrates around them, Clementine tells Joel, “Meet me in Montauk.”
The film is inspired by the idea of the eternal recurrence, which is central to the writings of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. The concept of eternal recurrence is the idea that all events will recur again and again infinitely. Nietzsche uses this concept as a hypothetical question rather than as a fact. If this were true, then all decisions and all actions would be of utmost importance, as it will be repeated again and again in eternity. Here’s how Nietzsche puts it in Gay Science: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence.” For Nietzsche, the eternal recurrence is a call for embracing life. We must affirm everything that has happened to us in the past, and all that will happen in the future. This is what Nietzsche calls Amor fati, which is Latin for ”love of one’s fate”. The eternal recurrence and Amor fati is connected; the ability to lovingly embrace our fate can only stem from a profound sense of gratitude for what this life has to offer us.
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Joel wishes to forget Clementine, to erase his memory, which would run counter to the Nietzschean idea of Amor fati and the eternal recurrence. But as he relives his memories, he realizes he wants to keep his memories, even though they are painful. He realizes these memories are part of him and part of what makes him who he is, and he realizes that Clementine through their relationship is also a part of him and will always be. Losing Clementine would be losing part of himself. Joel changes his mind. As he is forgetting Clementine, he realizes how much he loves her. Even though their relationship wasn’t perfect, he knows that he loves her and doesn’t care that it won’t be perfect. He rejects perfection, rejects the blissful eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, instead choosing Clementine and the imperfect, messy love that comes with it. Joel and Clementine know they are likely to repeat many of the same mistakes that made being together so difficult in the first place. They know their relationship is not going to be ideal, flawless. But they still want to be together. This is Amor fati, embracing the imperfection of life.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is an important ode to the beauty of messy relationships, an unparalleled romance and one of the best films of the 21st century.