Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry’s 2004 drama “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” has the best representation of dreams and memories in film. Most of this movie takes place in the mind of our main character Joel Barish, played by Jim Carrey, as he sleeps. His lucid dreams give way to a trove of memories about a past love that he actively works to prevent from being erased. The film switches between different scenes of Joel’s memories and real-life interactions, such as with Patrick and Stan, the people working to erase Joel’s memories per his request.
We first experience Joel’s surface-level memories — the ones that he really wants gone. He has seemingly lost his recollection of the good times with his ex-partner Clementine, portrayed by Kate Winslet. As the film progresses and we get to more positive memories, Joel begins to regret his decision to erase them. Due to this, he starts actively interacting with his dreams rather than passively remembering them, fighting to save Clementine in each memory as they’re being erased. He drags her into memories she wasn’t present at, such as Joel’s childhood. There, we see him shrunken down as he remembers his environment from the perspective of a child.
Joel’s memories blend with what he hears in the real world while asleep, leading to confusion. For example, an unconscious Joel figures out that Patrick, played by Elijah Wood, is stealing his identity to get with Clementine from a combination of memories and hearing him talk in real time.
Visually, the portrayal of dreams shines in this film. We see the haziness and confusing nature of dreaming, frequently shifting between seemingly unrelated scenes and memories from Joel’s life. I found the vague, jumbled and unrecognizable faces he sees to be very accurate. In dreams, I often know who I’m interacting with without really being able to see their faces, especially when I lack a sharp mental image of them. In Joel’s mind, Patrick’s face is often obscured or incomplete. In one scene, we see the back of Patrick’s head and with every move or change in perspective, his head remains facing away from the viewer. This has to do with the fact that Joel’s movements in his dreams do not mirror how he moved during the formation of the memories he’s dreaming about.
Additionally, the viewer experiences Joel’s memories fading as they’re being erased. Visually, this is done by erasing background feed, such as words on signs and books or surrounding people and things. It’s also done by enhancing the brightness of the background to become more vague and blurred. In some memories, the use of a spotlight is important to allow the audience an obstructed view of the screen. The periphery is not formed, which is common in memories and dreams. Voices are also hazy: there are times we can’t understand what someone is saying because sounds are distant and faded. Once the memory is erased, we find ourselves with Joel in a completely different environment that we immediately adapt to. We don’t question how or why we got there, we just begin interacting with the new memory.
He often does things without really knowing why. Since his behavior is partially dictated by how he acted when the memory actually took place despite having a different goal now, he starts to forget what those new goals are. In the film’s iconic beach scene, Joel and Clementine break into a house but he gets scared and leaves. He hears Clementine ask why he’s leaving the house despite his wish to stay. Joel explains that’s what he did at the time the memory was formed; however, when Clementine tells him he can choose to stay, he does. This causes the house to fall apart, representing his last memory with Clementine being erased despite all Joel’s preventative work. As the dream is being erased, we can only see the couple’s faces close up and blurred as Clementine whispers “meet me in Montauk” before she and the memory are gone.
This is very interesting in terms of dreams and memories because this isn’t something Clementine said in real life; this is created by Joel’s mind as a last ditch attempt to remember Clementine. And it works. The film ends where it began, with Joel meeting Clementine while spontaneously deciding to skip work on Valentine’s Day. He heads to Montauk without really knowing why, but we know that he’s managed to keep Clementine in his subconscious. It can be assumed it was similar for Clementine, who also had her memories of Joel erased before he did, and she too decided to go to Montauk that day. The audience can surmise that they both changed their minds while having the memory-erasing procedure done and came to the same solution that remained in their subconscious, leading them to Montauk.
The viewer empathizes with what Joel is feeling by experiencing his memories. You feel like you’re fighting with him to save your own memories of someone you love, as well as the confusion of dreams and the real-world emotions we bring into them. The fact that we see all of this unfold only for Joel to wake up and forget is devastating. I feel this way with dreams sometimes as you can have vivid dreams that feel so real and impactful, but then you wake up and they’re gone. I like that his memories weren’t truly forgotten, but instead led him to reunite with Clementine. You can’t truly erase memories, those feelings and the impacts of people in your life.
“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” raises the possibility that the reasons we act spontaneously for unknown reasons are connected to our dreams and subconscious — although probably not due to a procedure in which you elect to erase someone from your mind. I think this film is beautiful in its story and its visuals. It isn’t easy to portray the feeling of dreams and memories accurately through film, but I found that this movie did a great job. I have yet to see one that compares in that respect.