Why we still can’t forget Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Two people sleep on a bed in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

If you ask your average millennial writer or film lover what their favorite movie is, chances are a lot of them are going to say Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Take it from me, a 31-year-old writer and film lover. In truth, it’s not hard to realize why: Eternal Sunshine came out when I was 12, and it instantly seemed like a step forward in my cinematic education. It felt so adult and philosophical, even literary, a profound picture that was too elevated for my young mind to understand. However, unlike many other movies, which become lesser as one matures, Eternal Sunshine feels just the same 20 years later. It’s a profound and poignant experience that, even now, with the supposed wisdom life has technically given me, seems no less intricate than it did back then.

Michel Gondry’s mind-bending, thought-provoking exploration of heartache and loss came out in March 2004 and was a cult classic from the get-go; time has only been kind to it, improving its standing and turning it into a modern-day masterpiece. Beyond the incredibly original premise, Eternal Sunshine has aged like fine wine for the potent message at its core. Because above the memory-hopping sci-fi shenanigans, the film is a story about love: love acquired, love lost, love missing, and love remembered.

Change your heart

Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey as Clementine and Joel sitting next to each other in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Image via Focus Features

Jim Carrey stars as Joel, a solitary man who meets and quickly forms a connection with the unpredictable Clementine, played by Oscar-winner Kate Winslet. Unbeknownst to them, they shared a prior relationship that ended badly, prompting them to undergo a procedure to delete each other from their memories.

In 2004, Charlie Kaufman was already one of Hollywood’s most daring screenwriters, thanks to his innovative screenplays for 1999’s Being John Malkovich and 2002’s Adaptation. In many ways, however, Eternal Sunshine marked an evolution for his career as it effortlessly blended his distinctive, transgressive nature and the mainstream commercialism that had eluded him  ti that point — indeed, Eternal Sunshine remains his highest-grossing film at the box office, earning over $70 million worldwide.

The film found an audience and keeps enthralling viewers today because it’s a relatively straightforward take on love. In typical Kaufman fashion, though, its musings are not what you’d expect from a Hollywood romance. In Eternal Sunshine‘s world, much like in real life, love is heartache, pain, anger, frustration, loss, grief, and everything in-between. It’s also cyclical, a never-ending spiral with no real beginning, much less an ending. Kaufman’s screenplay balances the cold realities of life with ethereal concepts like fate and predisposition. The result is a deeply relatable and honest depiction of what is arguably humanity’s most complicated feeling. The wonder of this film is that it’s never trying to explain something that is, quite frankly, unexplainable. And yet you feel it.

Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind (2004) - 'Remember Me' Movie Clip

At its core, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a story about hope. Kaufman never lies to you. Quite the opposite, he’s quite clear: love is messy, ever-changing, and possibly cruel. Most importantly, and potentially terrifying, is that it never ends. Like the icy backgrounds that occupy every scene in the film, love melts, but always returns. Like the icy touch that soon starts to burn, love hurts and alleviates; it crumbles yet restores, consumes yet delivers. Love is the human experience itself, and we are predisposed to it.

What a wonderful thought, indeed! If you’re a romantic, anyway. But Eternal Sunshine suggests there’s a bit of romance within all of us — we just have different ways of expressing it. The cynics will say love leads to heartache and emptiness, while the optimists will happily declare it leads to completion and purpose. Kaufman doesn’t care about that; to him, love simply leads, and Eternal Sunshine is the road it takes.

I need your lovin’ like the sunshine

Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey as Clementine and Joel in bed together in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Image via Focus Features

It’s not an overstatement to say Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind shaped my generation. Whereas the boomers had The Graduate and Gen X-ers had Reality Bites, millennials had Eternal Sunshine. Its challenging, yet idealized version of love had a profound impact on the way we processed emotions, inspiring music videos, video games, and even Oscar-winning movies.

Carrey and Winslet’s characters also had a profound influence on our culture. Winslet’s Clementine predated and simultaneously reconceptualized the modern manic pixie dream girl; her chaotic, colorful style became a modern trend, and her explosive, mercurial personality turned into a behavioral dogma.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (1/11) Movie CLIP - Train Ride (2004) HD

For his part, Carrey’s Joel is the embodiment of my generation’s confused aimlessness. He goes through life longing for something he cannot quite see, knowing in his heart it’s still missing. Joel is the first of many gentle losers that would dominate the screens throughout the late 2000s and 2010s, a being of unspoken desire and unexpressed emotion that would brand millennials for years to come.

In many ways, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the film that best represents us millennials. Like Joel and Clementine, we, too, are out here, lost, and wondering if maybe we have also forgotten something, some crucial part of our lives that’s preventing us from living them to the fullest. Melancholy is now part of our beings, but we lack the words to explain it and the courage to confront it. Perhaps we also went to Lacuna to have part of our memory erased. Perhaps we will also, somehow, someday, stumble upon that one person we erased, and everything will fall into place. Perhaps there’s also a Montauk waiting for us.

It will astound you

Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey as Clementine and Joel lying on a bed of cracked ice in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Image via Focus Features

At 20, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind feels more relevant than ever. The film is a staple of streaming services — it’s currently streaming on Peacock — wand is the subject of multiple Pinterest boards, YouTube essays, and think pieces. Hell, Ariana Grande just named an entire album after it! Few films can claim to have as much staying power without any negative “discourse” surrounding them.

Unlike most movies, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind isn’t necessarily a product of its time; it has a universality to it that makes it everlasting and evergreen. It’s a romance more concerned with the feeling’s effects rather than with the love story itself. There is no destination here; it’s all about the journey. That is the magic of the film: its themes and ideas are relatable, affecting, and resonant.

A man and a woman stare at each other in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is an ode to love and, therefore, an ode to being alive, being human, being present. It’s a tale that starts at the end  because, actually, the ending is just the middle, and the story keeps going. Like the feeling it so beautifully captures, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind lingers where so many other movies falter. It breaks your heart because perhaps hearts aren’t meant to be full; perhaps it’s in our nature to be a bit broken; perhaps that’s our natural state, doomed to forever seek a way to put it back together. Maybe that’s what gives us hope and will. Maybe love isn’t meant to mend a broken heart; maybe it’s meant to keep it open to remind us that, no matter what happens, we will always bleed, and it will keep on beating.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is available to stream on Peacock.