Do you believe in fate? It's an age-old question that countless myths, religions, and stories ponder. Do our choices matter or are they merely parlor games to entertain us as we march unwittingly towards a predetermined ending? Personally, the idea that my entire life story has already been written by some invisible force doesn't sit well with me, so I embrace the idea of free will.
If you're anything like me, you prefer to be in charge of your own life and like to imagine giving fate a well-deserved middle finger as you cruise down a path of your own choosing. But, before I have you feeling too empowered, consider the fact that fate might actually be a bit more skilled at this whole life thing than you are. Maybe the ending fate envisioned for you was a million times better than the one you chose, and you ruined your life by following your own path.
The truth is, regardless of who wins, the eternal struggle between fate and free will, both have consequences. But before you get too bummed out by your choices, there is a third option to consider, which is explored in Michel Gondry's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."
'Woke Up In A Funk Today'
"Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind" centers around Joel Barish (Jim Carrey), a lonely, unfulfilled wallflower, who would rather write in his journal than meet eyes with a pretty stranger. In the film's first scene, Joel wakes up in a cramped apartment on a futon, walks out to find a new gash in the side of his car, and impulsively skips work to take a train to Montauk. Two years' worth of pages are ripped from his journal, which he cannot recall throwing away, and he is drawn to a blue-haired woman who also decided to walk a freezing beach in February.
Joel and the woman end up sharing a train, and after a few tentative glances, she walks over to talk to him. The two strangers are inexplicably drawn to each other, and suspect they have run into each other before. From their first conversation, we see a distinct difference in personality between Clementine (Kate Winslet) and Joel. She shares random, intimate details about herself and her life with Joel, as he nervously smiles and mumbles meaningless pleasantries. Clementine struggles to connect with him, and the conversation quickly devolves into bickering that resembles that of an old married couple. It's a clue that will make sense later.
Eventually, Clementine chips away at Joel's shy exterior, and the two begin to fall in love, but if you're expecting a happily ever after fade-out, this isn't that kind of story. Turns out, the two had a relationship before, and it turned sour, which led Clementine to erase Joel from her memory. Out of heartache and a bit of spite, Joel decided to do the same, which brings us into the second act of the movie.
'Nothing You'll Miss'
The majority of the film takes place inside Joel's mind as he undergoes the memory-erasing procedure. We watch their relationship in reverse, traveling from vitriolic arguments back to the honeymoon beginning, and the same dynamic we saw on the train plays out before our eyes. Clementine thinks Joel is closed off to her, so she tries to force him to be more open, which results in Joel retreating even further into his shell. The reasons for the breakup are obvious, and at first, erasing Clementine from his memory seems like a sensible move for Joel, but that's before we see them happy.
Joel recalls his love for Clementine through his memories and decides he doesn't want to forget her, so he attempts to hide her where she doesn't belong. Joel finally opens up and allows Clementine into his deepest thoughts and profound experiences from childhood and adolescence, but those memories are erased too. He accepts that there is no going back and that all he can do is enjoy his memories of Clementine one last time before they are gone forever.
As Joel's last memory falls apart around him, Clementine whispers, "Meet me in Montauk" into his ear. Joel wakes up the next morning and we've circled back to the beginning of the film. Somewhere in his subconscious, he remembers Clementine's last words, and he impulsively skips work and takes the train to Montauk.
Before Joel and Clementine can begin their relationship again, they are each sent a copy of their patient files in the mail, which includes a taped recording of their voices. In these recordings, Clementine and Joel detail every little thing they dislike about the other, and they listen to them together. This is how they discover their forgotten past. Awkward!
Overwhelmed by all of Joel's uncensored thoughts about her, Clementine tries to leave, but Joel runs after her. He insists that he doesn't agree with his past self, and that he likes everything about her. Clementine points out that it is just a matter of time before the past repeats itself, and they end up hurting each other all over again. Joel shrugs and says, "Okay."
The last scene of the film shows Joel and Clementine chasing each other on a snow-covered beach, creating new memories to replace the ones they lost.
The ending is intentionally left open for each viewer to decide what happens to Joel and Clementine.
If you believe in fate, it stands to reason that Joel and Clementine are destined to hurt each other, and nothing they do will alter that path. Those who favor free will probably believe that Joel and Clementine have learned from the past and are capable of creating a brighter future together. Personally, I believe fate and free both have a hand in this relationship, and the film seems to hint at that fact.
At the end of the movie, Joel and Clementine don't discuss how they'll do it all differently this time or make plans to avoid falling into the same pitfalls as their previous relationship, which is a perfect recipe for repeating the mistakes of the past. As the film concludes, they seem fully aware that they're destined to break each other's hearts, but they decide to be together anyway. They could walk away and accept defeat, but they embrace the fate of future heartbreak with a shrug and a simple "Okay."
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