Study Guide

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Analysis

  • Lacuna

    "Lacuna" is a Latin word that means, "hole." It's actually a diminutive of the word "lacus," which refers to a standing body of water, like a lake. In modern language, "lacuna" is used to refer to a gap in something, though it has various more specific meanings in different contexts.

    It's not hard to see how this one fits in. The Lacuna procedure essentially leaves a huge gap in someone's memory. In fact, the term "lacunar amnesia" refers to the condition in which someone loses memory of a particular thing or event, so there's even precedence for the use of the word in modern psychology.

    Maybe none of this comes as a surprise to you, but if you happen to have Eternal Sunshine with you, you should go to about 1:19:50 and look at the van passenger door. If you do, you'll see that the "C" in "Lacuna" is missing. This not only means that the name mirrors what it means (pretty meta, right?).

    In the end, of course, the point is that "lacuna" refers to something that is missing. Although the patients like to think that they're erasing bad memories, it's still not as if these memories never happened. They've left their traces—and now something is actively missing.

  • Clementine's Hair

    Clementine changes hair color because she's crazy and fun and spontaneous and, like, sooo random.

    Well, okay—we're kind of kidding. But not really. Clementine wouldn't have colored hair if it wasn't at least a little bit symbolic, and that's what we get here. We're supposed to see her the way Joel sees her, which is as one crazy cat who has come to make his life better.

    But Clementine hair is actually more than that: it's also way for us to keep track of her chronologically. Clem's hair color becomes a big clue as to where in time we are at any given scene. We know when her hair is blue that we are in the present; when her hair is orange, or a deep reddish auburn, we know that we are in Joel's mind; and when her hair is green, we know we're witnessing Joel's memory of the first time he met her.

    The color of Clementine's hair also represents the status of her relationship with Joel. The deep reddish auburn color represents the happy days of the relationship. This is her hair color when they delve into Joel's past, when she becomes Mrs. Hamlyn, and when they're hiking in the woods or lying on the ice.

    When her hair turns lighter to match the color of her sweatshirt (the color she would probably call Agent Orange) we understand that the relationship has started to go south. Her hair is this color, for example, when she and Joel argue at the flea market, at home during Halloween, and when she comes in late.

    When Clementine's hair turns blue in the present, it's a fresh beginning of sorts, a blank slate. At least that's the happy interpretation of it. The color is called Blue Ruin, which could be a reference to cheap gin or just hint at ruin in general. (Blue ruin was a cheap kind of gin that was tinted blue and would, presumably, ruin you. It was often homemade so you didn't know exactly what you were gonna get.) Clementine's hair is blue when she experiences her most intense moment of identity loss, when her mental state is seriously in ruins.

    Finally, the green hair at the end (or the beginning), when Clementine and Joel first meet, seems to represent the beginning or birth of the relationship: it's a springtime color. We also know that its name is Green Revolution, so it could represent a revolution, a great change in Joel's life. It could also refer to a revolution as a cycle, hinting at the repetitive nature of Joel and Clem's relationship.

  • Joel on TV

    In the scene during which Joel is eating Chinese food and watching TV on the couch with Clem, the TV starts showing some interesting things. First, as Joel gets up to investigate the voices of Patrick and Stan, we see the TV reflecting Clem, who's still sitting on the couch eating her food. Then Joel walks behind the TV, and instead of acting like a mirror, it behaves as if it's a window. We can see part Joel's torso and the box of food he's holding on the TV.

    This is a cute visual trick that's hard to notice at first. There may not be any specific importance attached to it, but Gondry has used similar imagery, what you could call mise en abyme, or pictures within pictures, in many of his other works, including music videos. Maybe he's drawing attention to the fact that Joel's life is like a television show to the Lacuna employees, who are basically mapping out the past two years of his life. Maybe it's about how, in a way, Joel is watching himself, and we as an audience are watching Joel watching Joel.

    As an additional little fun fact, one of the programs on Joel's TV is the unaired pilot episode of the 1960s TV show The Munsters, called "My Fair Munster." The scene playing from the episode features the grandfather character trying to find the recipe for a love potion—which is something that Joel could probably use. Also, remember that it's Halloween, so it makes sense that this would be on TV—but it's funny that this is the unaired pilot, a lacuna in the history of the show.

  • Hero's Journey

    Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.

    About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)

    Ordinary World

    Joel's ordinary world is insanely depressing. His girlfriend Naomi is gone and he doesn't seem to be having much fun or really enjoying life. He's not exciting or adventurous…and neither is his life.

    Then he meets Clementine and things are so much better—until they aren't. She gets mad at Joel and he gets mad at her, and it seems as if Joel is destined to lead an uber-depressing existence.

    Call To Adventure

    But then Joel finds out that Clem erased him entirely from her memory. He tries to talk to her, but she has no idea who he is. His friends try to calm him but Joel's obviously not a happy camper about it. Something has to be done.

    Refusal Of The Call

    Joel's first response is sadness (typical Joel), but his second is anger and a need for vengeance. His first trip to Lacuna is filled with disbelief, but he decides to erase Clem from his memory, as much to get even with her as to forget about her.

    Meeting The Mentor

    Joel's only real mentor in the film is himself. We could argue that Howard or even Clementine helps guide him through his memories as he tries to hold onto them, but we have to remember that these are just Joel's memories of these people, not the people themselves.

    It's really Joel who's subconsciously advising his conscious self as the latter treks through the realm of the former.

    Crossing The Threshold

    Joel crosses the threshold into the other world (the world of memories, in this case) before he or the audience even realizes it. We see him take the pills and we watch Patrick and Stan come into the room…but none of it will make sense until we are already going through Joel's mind and reach the recent Lacuna memories. Joel starts experiencing some weird symptoms and realizes his journey through his own mind has already begun.

    Tests, Allies, Enemies

    Joel's tests—and his journey as a whole—can be looked at in two ways. First we have the journey contained within the dream. These tests are his attempts to warn Clem of Patrick, who he's learned is dating her by being manipulative, and, more importantly, to hold on to some of his good memories so he doesn't forget what being with Clem was like.

    His second journey is the journey we're experiencing in reverse: his relationship with Clem. These tests involve navigating that difficult space between two people as they fall in love and end up at odds. It's Joel's struggle to get along with Clementine so they're both happy with one another.

    Approach To The Inmost Cave

    Joel's inmost cave is the fall forest he and Clem find themselves in. It's the last moment of peace he gets before the hectic Ordeal of running and hiding from the procedure. It's in the forest that Joel finally realizes getting rid of his bad memories isn't worth losing the good memories, and it's this moment of clarity that drives the following climax of the film.

    Ordeal

    During the Ordeal, Joel and Clem are running everywhere in Joel's mind, trying to dodge Howard. First they head to a series of baby Joel memories, then to some embarrassing repressed memories, and finally their last happy moments together before it's all gone.

    Reward (Seizing The Sword)

    Unfortunately for Joel, there is no triumph during the Ordeal, and so there's no reward at the end. He was unable to hold on to his memories of Clem…just like he was unable to hold onto her. For all his efforts, Joel's reward is a mind free of all the good and the bad left in his life by Clementine.

    The Road Back

    Joel's road back is a strange one, because we've seen it before. He wakes up and goes to Montauk although he doesn't know why. He meets Clem and they go to her place for drinks, then they head out on the ice and look at the stars, just like they did before.

    Then we get something new: Clem finds evidence about her Lacuna procedure.

    Resurrection

    Joel's Resurrection is his fight with Clem at the movie's close. They're both hurt by the mean things they've said about each other on their Lacuna tapes, and both of their first reactions is to end the relationship they've barely started.

    However, after admitting both the possibility of the relationship and the possibility that it all goes wrong again, they decide to stick it out and see if they can be happy with each other.

    Return With The Elixir

    Whether or not Joel's elixir—happiness—will continue to exist is a big question left by the film. It's unclear whether or not Joel and Clem will find happiness with each other, or whether they'll continually erase each other until they're old and don't need the procedure to forget.

    The optimist in us wants to believe their awareness of their past will be all they need to attain the elixir, but there's no way to know.

  • Setting

    New York, Early 2000s

    We know what you're thinking: "Oh, New York. How original. No one's ever done a movie in New York before." But, really, this location was important to Gondry. In fact, the movie was originally going to be shot in Canada for budgetary purposes, but Gondry fought to film it on location in New York because he wanted it to feel as authentic as possible (Gondry actually still lives in New York not too far from some of the filming locations.) The city and the beach together provide a sort of bleak blankness, punctuated only by Clementine and her colorful hair.

    The Mind

    But the more interesting setting in Eternal Sunshine is Joel's mind. It's a surreal place where things don't always make sense, since it's a manifestation of Joel's memories and thoughts rather than reality. Well, you could call it a reality, but it's a reality defined by Joel's impressions, which means it's pretty much a reflection of Joel himself.

    The transitions in the dream are odd and spontaneous. When the important action of one memory is over, the memory is erased and we find Joel in the subsequent memory, sometimes with Joel being pulled from the memory, like when he's flushed down the sink and pops up soaking wet in a car outside a drive-in theater. Joel's mind also has a very distinct, individual feeling to it, and that's highlighted by the slightly unnatural lighting of each scene.

    It also plays tricks with our perception as well. Besides shifting back and forth between eras in his life and specific incidents that may or may not have happened the way he remembers them, it messes with our perspective too. Look at the scene where Joel remembers being a kid playing in the rain…complete with an adult Joel moving through an oversized set with Clem as one of his mother's friends.

    It gets pretty weird, and that's kind of the point. The movie is trying to remind us that memories are tricky things, which can be fluid like mercury and shift from one second to the next. Attempting to pull one thread out of it—like, say, an ex-girlfriend who hurt you—is an exercise in absurdity. In this case, the setting serves a specific dramatic purpose as a reflection of the hero's personality, and the dilemma he's inflicted on himself by trying to make the pain of Clem's memory go away. 

  • Point of View

    Faking First Person

    First person doesn't really exist in its true form when it comes to movies. We suppose directors can go all out to really create the experience of a character in the film, but after watching Cloverfield, we've had enough shaky hand-cam for a lifetime. The point is that until virtual reality takes over cinema, to have a real first person movie is basically impossible, unless someone's doing on constant voiceover. We're rarely able to experience the exact same world a character in the movie is experiencing.

    But Gondry wasn't daunted by the task of essentially simulating a first-person experience. How does he do it, you ask? Well, he doe it by providing viewers with a limited amount of information. When Joel wakes up the morning after the Lacuna procedure, he has no clue what has happened—and neither do we. He goes to Montauk and meets Clem for what both he and we assume is the first time. There's only a brief period near the end of the movie (before Joel plays the tape) when we are aware of what has happened while Joel is not.

    By messing with the films chronology, Gondry restricts what we viewers know so that we are never too many steps ahead of Joel.

    A cool example of this happens in the scene where Joel looks at himself in Lacuna and realizes: "I'm in my head already, aren't I?" Gondry had given us hints, like when Joel walks out of Barnes & Noble and re-experiences talking to Frank, but this is the first time it becomes clear that we're actually witnessing the procedure take place, and it's the first time we really get a sense of the direction the film is headed.

    We should probably mention, by the way, that we literally are in Joel's mind. The film could have just been about Joel's memories—he could have been reminiscing about the past and reflecting on what brought him to this decision to have his memory erased. But instead, we delve right in and actually interact with Joel's past in a very visceral way. It doesn't get much more first person than that.

  • Genre

    Romance; Science Fiction; Mystery

    Romance

    Well, this one is a no-brainer. Eternal Sunshine is a movie about two people falling love… and then out of love… and then in love again—except sort of in the reverse order… which is still the same order? Anyway, you get the picture. It's a movie that's driven by a romantic relationship, so it's first and foremost a romance.

    Where the movie deviates from the romance genre is in its ambiguous ending. There's no final make-up scene when you just know everything is going to work out, all the problems will be solved, and everyone will live like Disney royalty. But there's also not a sense that are characters have really learned everything either, though they've probably learned that memory erasure isn't going to actually erase their problems, and that's something.

    Science Fiction

    Eternal Sunshine is far from your traditional sci-fi flick, but unless you've seen some Lacuna ads around lately, the whole memory erasure procedure is definitely in the realm of science fiction. This element is what makes the film such a unique experience. What would it be like if Joel and Clem both suffered damage and simply couldn't remember each other anymore? It just wouldn't be the same, because the movie is less about the results of the procedure and more about the procedure itself and Joel's experience of it. The film is about Joel's literal journey through his own mind, something that would be impossible without a hint of the surreal.

    Mystery

    Eternal Sunshine is a mystery in the sense that the viewer is forced to discover for him- or herself what is happening as the movie progresses. We're initially tricked: the film begins when Clem and Joel meet, and then it shifts to their break-up. We assume the film has jumped forward in time when really it has jumped backwards. We're left to uncover for ourselves what really happened, since everything we experience comes from Joel, not Clem. On top of that, Joel's memories unfold in reverse chronological order.

    Part of Eternal Sunshine's draw is the puzzle of information we are provided. It's the mystery aspect of the film that really makes multiple viewings rewarding.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Eternal Sunshine's title comes from a line in Alexander Pope's poem, "Eloise to Abelard," which Mary Svevo recites to Howard during the memory-erasing procedure. The lines that Mary recites are:

    How happy is the blameless vestal's lot!
    The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
    Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
    Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resign'd […].

    Before we dig into the lines themselves, let's talk about the poem. Pope based it on a story of 12th-century lovers Abelard (a famous French philosopher) and Heloïse, one of his pupils. The short version is that they fell in love and got married in secret, and when Heloïse's family finds out, they're not too happy, so they castrate Abelard, because what else are they supposed to do?

    The poem is what's called an Ovidian heroic epistle, so let's break that down before we continue. "Epistle" refers to the fact that the poem is written as a letter (hence the title "Eloise to Abelard"). Ovid, a Roman poet, wrote many poems called "heroides," just like Pope's; they were in the form of letters women addressed lovers who had somehow wronged them. And, of course, you can't forget about the rhyming couplets that also define the genre.

    When Wishes Become Reality

    But enough history—Pope's poem is a long 'un, so we'll give you a super short summary. Essentially, Eloise is caught in a bind and doesn't know what to do. She still has very strong feelings for Abelard, but he has asked her to take on the life of a nun, which she does unwillingly. Since Abelard is now a eunuch, Eloise worries that he cannot return her love, and she's stuck between a life with him that she can't have and a religious life that she doesn't want.

    And this is where these lines come in. Eloise is envious of the "blameless vestal," or virgin. Specifically, "vestal" refers to the Roman goddess Vesta (Hestia in Greek) and the priestesses who served her, who would take a vow of chastity. These women are both forgotten by the world and able to forget the world. Their existence is defined by their loyalty to Vesta, and thus they are blameless, sinless, and chaste.

    So, the "spotless mind" in this context isn't necessarily a blank mind, as it seems to be in the film; it refers instead to an innocent mind, a mind that does not have to account for its own sin. Virgins with their spotless minds have everything they want: they are eternally happy—or at least that's how the destitute Eloise sees it.

    Of course, it's more complicated than that, because the virgins achieve what seems to be happiness only by abstaining from some pretty big parts of life. Is it really happiness, or is it escapism? Put differently, is it better not to know pain or to know it?

    In the film, of course, the emphasis is not on sin, exactly, but more on memory and lack of worldly connection. Joel and Clem use Lacuna to withdraw from the life they had and the person they shared it with. But let's look at Mary for a second. Her affair with Howard has been erased from her mind. Her mind is spotless because it is sinless, and it is sinless because it is blank. She does not have to deal with the memory of the affair since the Lacuna procedure.

    It's possible to read Mary's recitation of Pope as ironic, because having the procedure only causes her more pain when she learns the truth. But really, learning the truth is the real problem. Only when the effects of the procedure are somewhat undone by listening to the tape does Mary experience the pain of her spotless mind becoming tainted again and her eternal sunshine disappearing behind the horizon of truth.

    So that's the big question: is it better to know, or not to know? Is ignorance bliss? Or is the pain of knowledge worth it—as long as you learn how to deal with it?

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Joel and Clem. Together forever. One way or another, we have a feeling this is going to be true. At the movie's close, our protagonists, despite knowing that they have already tried and failed to have a successful relationship, decide to get back together and give it another go. The big question of whether or not things will work out is never answered.

    More pessimistic people may be inclined to think that our couple will be trapped forever in a cycle of love and hate; falling for each other before things get sour and then erasing each other from their memories, over and over again.

    And while that could happen, optimists could see the fact that Joel and Clem are aware of the fact that they've already had the Lacuna procedure as evidence that this will not be cyclical. If things don't work out this time around, would they really decide once more to have a procedure that essentially only managed to cause more pain in the end? And on second thought, with Mary mailing all of the patients their information, is Lacuna and its procedure really going to be around too much longer?

    Who knows? Maybe the procedure is here to stay, an effective way for all couples to finally erase their time together. Is it sad? Scary? Wonderful? Depressing? Happy? It's all a matter of perspective.

  • Shock Rating

    R

    When it comes to the big R, Eternal Sunshine gets it mostly because of its language. Yeah, there's a little sexiness between Stan and Mary and Joel and Clem; people have a few drinks; and Rob talks about marijuana. But it's all pretty mild. We should note that if you feel particularly affectionate toward dead birds, one of Joel's memories might be a bit disturbing. And speaking of disturbing, some people don't really have faces; there's just sort of… skin where their facial features should be. It's creepy.

    But other than that, the main thing is that these characters pretty routinely drop F-bombs and other expletives. There are a lot of mad, sad, and generally upset people in this movie, so it's really no surprise.