In 2006, a 40-year-old woman known as "A.J." revealed her movie-like memory. In an interview with NPR, "A.J." said she can recall moments from her past with such specificity that memories to her are like "running a movie."
"When I think of the spring of '81, I can really physically feel it," she said. "I'm just there, like so intensely sometimes it really hurts."
A.J. revealed that her unusual memory was a burden. While most of us will never know exactly how A.J. feels, we may feel similarly about our own memories when they're haunted by someone, be it a former lover or whoever simply "got away." The pang of their absence and the yearning for their presence can sometimes be so overwhelming, you'd wish you never met them at all. So, what if you got rid of them? (And no, we don't mean ghosting.)
Under the direction of Michel Gondry and screenwriters Gondry, Pierre Bismuth, and Charlie Kaufman, that idea is explored and revealed to be an even more agonizing and soul-destroying process, in their 2004 nonlinear science-fiction film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This hit thriller, disguised as a romance, is the dreamy and wistful mid-aughts classic you need to stream on Netflix before it leaves on December 31 (in the U.S.)
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — a phrase coined by 18th century English poet Alexander Pope, to mean "ignorance is bliss" — lanky, depressed Joel (Jim Carrey) learns that his ex-girlfriend, Clementine (Kate Winslet) erased him from her memory thanks to an experimental procedure. (Eschewing the clean white surfaces and tech villains a more careless film would envision, the offices of the groundbreaking Lacuna, Inc. is the most beige city doctor's office staffed by Tom Wilkinson, Mark Ruffalo, Kristen Dunst, and a scummy Elijah Wood.) Heartbroken, Joel seeks the same procedure. But in the midst of doing so, he comes to a revelation, which kicks off a desperate struggle to keep Clementine, or at least his memories of her, alive.
A thing to keep in mind: While "erasure" is a word used often when talking about Eternal Sunshine (and indeed is used explicitly in the script), the correct word is "degradation." The movie's science-fiction, Wilkinson's Dr. Mierzwiak tells Joel, works by zapping away the emotional core of the memories, which kicks off a degradation process. It's not about erasing the memories but the emotions that fuel them. You remember your happiest or saddest moments with your ex because of how you felt all those years ago, and why you don't remember your routine breakfast from today.
This is both a clever thematic device and a convenient filmmaking loophole; in the script, characters reference memories that were supposedly "erased" (since the full erasure isn't complete until the subject, i.e. Joel, wakes up in the morning). On camera, this allows unforgettable visuals that were, to no one's surprise, nearly impossible to pull off. (The complexity of shooting a crumbling beach house, one of the movie's most important moments, was such a nightmarish recipe for disaster that Gondry was yelled at by a union chief in front of his own crew.)
Eternal Sunshine was, and is, deservedly a cult favorite that won an Oscar (Best Original Screenplay) and permanent placement on college dorm DVD shelves. Its most alluring power is in the universal idea that we can love and miss someone so much, we wish we'd never met them. The movie owes a debt to Alain Resnais' 1968 science-fiction film Je'taime, Je'taime (about a heartbroken man in a time travel experiment that goes south), but Sunshine's origins lie in such a prompt. One day, Bismuth spoke to a frustrated friend about their boyfriend. When Bismuth asked if they could erase their boyfriend from their memory, the friend said yes.
But while Eternal Sunshine was made because of a yes, it emphatically argues the answer ought to be "no." While the memories are painful, it's pain worth keeping. Their lingering, ghostly presence in our heads and hearts can keep us going even through tougher days.
"I can't see anything I don't like about you," a post-procedure Joel tells post-procedure Clementine when they coincidentally meet again. "But you will," Clementine argues. "You will think of things and I'll get bored with you and feel trapped because that's what happens with me."
Joel answers with one word that changes everything: "Okay."
Eternal Sunshine can be mildly unbearable, depending on how you vibe to mid-aughts quirk. (Personally, I vibe to that shit a lot.) Clementine, performed admirably by Winslet, is a prototype of the manic pixie dream girl that evolved into its final form when Zooey Deschanel sang The Smiths in (500) Days of Summer.
But Clementine is surprisingly aware of this projection when she protests, "I'm not a concept." And it's her quirkiness, with the "bullshit" rainbow hair, that disillusions Joel than lures him. Heard in voice-over when Joel plays his tape to erase Clementine, Joel somberly says that "her personality promises to take you out of the mundane" only to learn that "it's really an elaborate ruse." But still, Joel says, it seduces you.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is streaming on Netflix until December 31 in the U.S.