Research Paper On The Film Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

The film ​Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind​ (Michel Gondry, 2004) is one of those movies that people tend to either love or hate. Although the ratings of this movie differ between the critics and the general population, it is my guess that the sensitive and creative direction, clever script, and beautifully written score music impressed much of the general population more than the critics. Moreover, this film included many philosophical and psychological questions that helped achieve much of the positive feedback, however it does not just explore philosophical and psychological ideas but rather attempts to explore these ideas through an implicit position. The plot of the movie tries to provide answers to those questions throughout the film. Main themes in this film use the associationist school of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis, as well as support for an existential psychological outlook. 

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind​ (Michel Gondry, 2004) is a unique twist on the classic tale of two completely different people finding love together. The film begins with the main character Joel Barish (Jim Carrey’s character) meeting and eventually courting a girl named Clementine (played by Kate Winslet), unbeknownst to the both of them that they have been in a serious relationship before. The audience is then flashed back in time to find out Clementine has had all of her past memories regarding Joel and their relationship erased by a company named Lacuna, Inc. Joel, who is extremely hurt when he finds this truth out by happenstance, decides to do the same to his memory and erase Clementine completely. 

During the scene of Joel’s procedure, the audience is essentially watching Joel and Clementine’s previous long-term relationship in reverse as Lacuna, Inc. begins to erase each memory, one by one. This procedure is something that lasts all night while the brain is hooked up to a machine and two technicians take note and move the procedure along carefully. As the night goes on the technicians get sleepy and distracted, allowing for Joel to become conscious in the memories of Clementine and himself. As the happy and fond memories go through his dreams, Joel changes his mind and decides that he wants to keep his memory of his love, including all of the bad ones. While Joel is deciding this in his sleep, one of the technicians has left while the other is distracted by a girl he invited over, leaving Joel completely unattended. At this moment in the movie Joel is trying to save Clementine in his mind. He does this by being clever: deciding to ‘hide’ Clementine inside of his childhood memories so he could keep her somewhere she wouldn’t be erased, theoretically. Even after this incredible effort, and substantial amount of screen time, his memories were all erased as planned. 

In a parallel storyline Mary, the receptionist of Lacuna, Inc., previously had an affair with the neuroscientist and head of the company in a past life, but agreed to have the memories erased when the wife learned of it. Mary goes on to date one of the Lacuna, Inc. technicians on Joel’s case, having no knowledge of her past affair with the boss, but admits (as if for the very first time) to him her deep and intense love for him. Somehow, as if not a prewritten storyline, the wife of the head neuroscientist notices this horrific encounter made by Mary and explains that she has been through this exact situation before with her. In a huge fit of rage and passion, Mary releases all of the files and tapes to the patients. Clementine and Joel eventually receive them, but they are only filled with awful memories. However as the couple eventually find their way back to each other, they recognize that they cannot fully forget their shared experiences because a person’s identity is solely a sum total of their past experience. 

The movie began in February in New York City, everything grey from winter and a bleached effect in the lighting embodying hopelessness. Joel’s apartment is dark and filled with damaged furniture, antique and worn, while his clothes are plain and boring, sometimes involving rips and stains. A scene shortly after pictured Joel on a train, buried in a notebook. Contrasting Joel’s character, Clementine is shown wearing a bright orange sweatshirt with outgrown bright green dyed hair. Her physical characteristics very obviously shout that she does not care what other people think about her, carefree and impulsive. As their friendship very quickly (and very passionately) progressed into a relationship, Joel’s character was able to develop and he starts to take charge of what he wants, ultimately for Clementine to infiltrate his entire life and mind. One of the film’s themes strongly claims that real-world suppression of memories is impractical and dangerous. When seen through the lens of Freud’s free association, it is asserted to the audience that memory is subjective and fallible in not only its cognition, but also recollection because people’s collective past experiences comprise of what makes them fully human. Knowing this then it is merely unfeasible to erase memories and keep the self’s identity intact, also paving way for Freud’s theory of personality containing the id, ego, and superego. Phenomenology is an approach to psychology that studies the structures of consciousness that people experience from first-person perspectives (Smith). Memories exist in the grey area between sensation and perception, as they represent perceptions that have been encoded and stored which are re-experienced and re-perceived upon each contemplation. 

As a person experiences reality in front of them, they sense, then perceive, and lastly reflect. This reflection, though, occurs non-chronologically and by association in a fragmented mode of consciousness, which ​Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind​ communicates through its non-chronological storyline, I believe to illustrate the associational qualities of memory encoding and recollection (Loftus). Parts of the story are arranged in the plot in a strategic order to reveal narrative, character, and theme. The non-chronology of the storage and retrieval of memories in the movie is similar to Sigmund Freud’s method of free association. Within this the important phenomena of resistance, transference, and countertransference still occur and with the major advantage of the person being conscious (Loftus). Using Freud’s technique allows the true structure and nature of a person’s unconscious mind to be made known. 

The technicians at Lacuna, Inc. apply the memory erasing procedure indiscriminately to all of Joel’s memories of Clementine, both positive and negative, which proves time and time again to be detrimental to Joel’s happiness and overall well-being. They specifically give Joel instructions to bring every item attached with a memory of Clementine to trigger associations in his brain that they map. As they later perform the procedure, they target and destroy specific coordinates in Joel’s brain, causing him to relive the memories that exist there. Nearly all of the memories shown in the chaos of his brain regard a specific event that was emotionally significant. Since Joel and Clementine’s relationship was quite eventful and turbulent, most of the memories included are feelings of anger, embarrassment, or jealousy. All the while those are deleted, he also recollects fond memories, which makes him nostalgic of the positive side of his relationship with Clementine. However by blocking everything related to his love, Joel loses more than the painfully associated experiences, but also the more precious and happy memories that made him the man he was. 

Since discussing Freud I find it only fair to incorporate and expand upon his beginning findings: the id, ego, and the superego. This is what he labeled the differentiating parts of the conscious, preconscious, and the unconscious. In Tracy B. Henley’s ​An Introduction to the History of Psychology​, it is explained that consciousness consists of all the things that we are aware of, the preconscious is comprised of things we are not aware of but could easily become aware, and lastly the unconscious are the things we completely are unaware of such as “thoughts and feelings that are being actively repressed from consciousness” (chapter 16, section 6a). I believe Freud’s themes of repression and the unconscious dictate the journey as the viewer is witnessing the memories compiled and deleted. As mentioned earlier when Joel begins to regret his decision he starts to manipulate his memories by traveling to older ones. As a couple they travel to when Joel was younger, attempting to conceal Clementine in unconscious thoughts and repressed memories. The audience is introduced to a handful of repressed memories, such as a time he was bullied by peers to hit a dead bird with a hammer and another time of his mother’s friend coming to babysit him. The film did not expound upon the latter repressed memory, but I do remember questioning if that friend had a long-lasting negative impact on Joel.

Expanding further within Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, Joel’s dreams can also be analyzed. One element has to be present in all dreams using Freud’s theories and that is wish fulfillment. Sigmund Freud argued that every part of a dream has some meaning attached to it and even the very small pieces ultimately are responsible for the dream’s true meaning. There are many images and symbols in Joel’s dream that are open to interpretation and represent his feelings in his current state. 

During the procedure the recollection of memories makes Joel regret his decision and pieces of the ceiling start falling and the water starts coming in, prompting Joel to say to Clementine “now I wish I’ve stayed” (Michel Gondry, 2004). In text Freud always refers to a house as the self, and assuming water acts as an overwhelming substance (De Sousa). The flood is meant to cause destruction and disaster to the house; to hasten the destruction of an already broken man. Joel is experiencing confusion in the dream and acting at the capacity of a young child, he can’t seem to figure a way out of his problem. As the water becomes stronger and rises, it is now under his feet and symbolically breaking away at his foundation and security. The water overtaking the house, I believe, stands for the procedure trying to erase Clementine from Joel’s mind. The crumbling ceiling and the house as a whole might refer to the disintegration of Joel’s self. Clementine has become a part of Joel, and in the process of losing her, he loses himself. 

To discuss a second approach to this film I will introduce an existentialist perspective. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind​ claims that memories lead us to live an authentic life and that attempting to remove them will only lead to inauthentic perceptions of one’s own life. To recap their relationship more precisely, Joel states in the very first memories with Clementine that he is exactly where he is meant to be and never felt happier (Gondry, 2004). This scene displays a genuinely true happiness of an authentic relationship. A scene after the procedure however, leaving him with a life of no attachment to Clementine, he feels as if his life is not interesting and it is set to a daily routine. Joel’s second attempt at a relationship with Clementine is much different, leaving him feeling as if there is no use in even talking because they are not communicating​ effectively, essentially leaving him feeling inauthentic. As they allow this relationship put on auto pilot to chug along, Joel asks Clementine, “Are we like those bored couples you always feel sorry for at restaurants? Are we the dining dead?” (Gondry, 2004). This allows the audience to witness that Joel has come full circle, believing that further down the road in their relationship he is not living life with Clementine to its fullest potential, leaving him feeling again like his life is too repetitive. 

To expand even further upon Joel and Clementine’s relationship I think it is important to analyze her behavior as well. As briefly mentioned earlier, Clementine sports neon hair and mismatched clothes, representing her nonconformity to society and unconventional personality. She is not in the business of concealing her emotions to please others. She mentions briefly in a scene that she “doesn’t need nice”, suggesting her despise for inauthentic interaction, all at the same time showing familiarity to Joel, perhaps because she subconsciously remembers him as well as the authenticity of their relationship. After Clementine’s procedure for the first time the audience is able to clearly see without speculation that there is a deep stirring within her. At one point she states, “I’m always anxious thinking and I’m not living my life to the fullest” (Gondry, 2004). This is a classic existentialist idea of following one’s true path and making choices without the influences of society but based on own needs and desires. It is obvious however, aside from her actual claim, that she is incredibly impulsive and does not always realize the consequences of her actions. She ends up in these situations that bring her to a truly authentic life, but only very briefly as she always seems to change her memories to a chaotic state. Clementine creates a false perception of the past, leading her back into an inauthentic life. By erasing Joel she was able to get rid of the moments that brought her anxiety and loneliness, but also the ones that brought her hope and wholeness. 

Diving deeper upon the existential lens, the subject and intense need for love is one that strikes deeply. The mere idea of love is said to be rooted, and particularly in the case of Joel as mentioned in a scene above, in childhood. Therefore erasing his memories of Clementine results in the erasing of some of his formative childhood events. This is arguably what causes the attraction and behavior in any given relationship and simply erasing all of it would leave one with no ability to love, even at all. Their anxiety-ridden relationship lacks complete self-awareness on both Joel and Clementine’s part. This sole reason could be to blame for each run of the relationship becoming worse, or even simply failing. 

Eternal Sunshine​, unlike some science-fiction films, is not in love with the modern technology it showcases. Quite the reverse, as the memory-removal procedure is presented as a tempting but misguided and dangerous tool. I found this to be an interesting and different approach when discussing an ‘out of this world’ type product. I find myself questioning the need for such technology in the world. 

Using Freud’s theory explains to me that someone who wanted to undergo this procedure would be ultimately avoiding their problem. One cannot simply just remove reality in order to only feel gain. Instead, each of the character’s should accept responsibility and control of their own lives. I believe that our darkest and most difficult moments in life are needed to explain the person we are today, and how we choose to love. Since Freud in large part focuses on the unconscious it is difficult to falsify his constructs. In a film based upon intense love and relationship, Freud does not emphasize the impact of social and interpersonal factors in one’s life enough. 

Using an existentialist theory to analyze this film, I do agree that meaning provides purpose in one’s life and in turn, true happiness. Perhaps in a solely humanistic approach away from spirituality, life would seem to have no predetermined meaning and most definitely that one’s own meaning might not be parallel to the path given to them by society. However, I ultimately disagree that complete freedom is essential to happiness because there are small freedoms that exist within the framework of society. I also have many qualms regarding the true meaning of freedom as it relates to human existence. We are convinced that we make conscious choices and decision throughout our lives, but instead it may actually be that our brain is convinced it made a free choice simply from the available options. On another note, I agree with the film’s stance on existence preceding essence, a common link to philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, essentially stating that personality is not based upon a specific purpose but rather the human being choosing to engage in them. Sartre pushes back in ​Existentialism Is a Humanism​ on basing our initial thoughts on pure subjectivity or the infamous Cartesian ​I think​ being the very pitfall of full comprehension. 

When analyzing the spiritual component of this film I was able to come to a clear conclusion: I would not support this type of technology being developed and surely would not embrace it in my own life. A Christian perspective of life is that it is according to divine plan, seen in places such as Hebrews 13:20-21, Jeremiah 29:11, and John 14:26 (The Holy Bible). Sure the idea of simply erasing negative memories sounds fruitful, however I can’t help but think of the lasting impact it has. A typical part of any given scenario is the good and the bad. Without just saying it is all apart of life, the negative events give us everlasting appreciation for the positive ones. 


  • De Sousa A. (2011). Freudian theory and consciousness: a conceptual analysis**. ​Mens sana monographs​, ​9​(1), 210–217. doi:10.4103/0973-1229.77437
  • Gondry, M. (Director), Kaufman, C., & Bismuth, P. (Writers), & Bregman, A., & Golin, S. (Producers). (2004). ​Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind​ [Video file].
  • Henley, T. B., & Hergenhahn, B. R. (2019, 2014). ​Hergenhahn's An Introduction to the History of Psychology​ (8th ed.). Boston: Cengage Learning.
  • Holy Bible: New Living Translation​. (2015). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House.
  • Loftus, Elizabeth. “The Reality of Repressed Memories.” ​American Psychologist​. 45.5 (1993): 13-5. Web.
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  • Sartre, J. (1947). ​Existentialism Is a Humanism​ (Vol. 1). Paris: Editions Gallimard.
  • Smith, David Woodruff. “Phenomenology.” ​Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy​. 2013.
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16 December 2021
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