To Grow in and Out of Love: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Romance is wretched. In true Aries fashion, from a young age, I felt like Joel from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: falling in love with anyone who showed me the least bit of attention, ready to give my whole self to people who could just as quickly toss me aside. The film subverts our expectations of the typical “tossing aside” of our lovers and the ways in which we attempt to remove all of the pain they caused us…or the pain we caused them.

In Eternal Sunshine, Joel and Clementine engage in a tumultuous relationship and an even more chaotic break-up. As a result, Clementine undergoes a procedure that will erase Joel from her memory and once Joel learns about this, he decides to do the same. As the procedure begins to unfold, Joel’s subconscious self fights the operation, begging the memories to stay, and working with the Clementine in his mind/of his memories to outsmart the “doctors.”

ERASE Yourself! - The Salty Herald

To bloom in love is a fickle thing. More often than not, we hope the person who loves us will somehow assist in our healing, or at the very least, offer something that will not cause us more pain. But, the brutal truth is to truly bloom in love is to permit potential withering. The person who loves you most dearly has the power to hurt you most deeply: knowing the words that will hit hardest, the insecurities you’ve carried before them, and having the full range to exploit and transform them into chess pieces of power. To have this power is not the same as wielding it, but the vulnerability is omnipresent and this is the behavior we see Joel and Clementine engage in, sharpening their words to feel any semblance of weight in a haphazard, unbalanced relationship. 

As a writer, words have always weighed the heaviest in my relationships. I remember the worst things lovers have uttered and held them closely. “Sometimes when I’m upset I don’t want you to say anything, I just want you to sit there and look pretty.”  At the ripe age of 15, that was my introduction to love: crying in a bathroom because his voice spilled out ruin in the form of “I still love her” and “Now I know that I can lie to you.” These are the perils of attachment: having to live with the words we hear and say and deciding how we drag them forward.

Joel refutes everything negative he hears himself say in his tape about Clementine and tells her “I can’t see anything I don’t like about you.” Clementine wisely replies “But you will, you will think of things and I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me.” And Joel, with a succinct “okay”, accepts this reality, daring to defy it. Clementine too buckles under the weight of love and replies, “okay” and with that, the two make the decision to bloom together. The film’s end featuring the jagged, repeated movement of Joel and Clementine could suggest that despite their heartbreak, they will always come back to each other in the way most find themselves addicted to a toxic relationship. To stay in an unhealthy relationship is the opposite of blooming, it is stagnant and unchanging. However, Joel and Clementine do not naively engage in a relationship this time around. In the cliché way April showers bring May flowers, Joel and Clementine are only able to reconnect and start over once they’ve remembered their heartbreak and love in spite of it. To delete someone from your memory is to be truly hurt by them, to choose to be with them again anyway is to truly love them. It is the risk of love that keeps us guarded, but hopeful enough to try again.

As we watch the memory of their first meeting, Clementine asks to “borrow” a piece of his chicken and Joel says Then you just took it without waiting for an answer. It was so intimate. Like we were already lovers.” This is my favorite quote in the film as it uses such a powerful word in the relevant context of time: intimate. Eternal Sunshine is about intimacy, the dangers of it, and its simultaneous magic. This reading offers the optimism of growth, to maturely acknowledge the obstacles of love and intimacy and surrender to it.

Watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, you cannot avoid reflecting on your relationships, past and/or present. I have been in a relationship for over two years and have learned that blooming in love, with health and maturity, is absolutely attainable and I’ve finally found it. For so long I would rip petals from myself and beg those around me to hold them. Now I only receive bouquets. With full certainty and vulnerability, I let my partner into the deepest parts of me and love just as deeply, like Clementine recounting her deepest insecurity under the solace of a blanket with Joel. This man knows me to my core, something that can and should frighten anyone, but should just as well thrill you and motivate you to say “okay” anyway. 

I do not claim to own any of these photos ❤

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