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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) is probably one of my favorite films. It is a mix of romance and science fiction but it still maintains an amazing level of reality. The film is directed by Michel Gondry and stars Jim Carrey as Joel Barish and Kate Winslet as Clementine Kruczynski. The screenplay is written by Charlie Kaufman (with story credits going to Michel Gondry and Pierre Bismuth) who is also well known for writing films like Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002).
If you are familiar with any of these films you probably know that Kaufman often plays with time and abstract psychological themes that make his work complicated and weird and really fun to watch. However, the 3 Act Structure is still relevant and important to consider when looking at how Kaufman crafts his work, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a great example of how Kaufman complicates a conventional 3 Act Structure to make an interesting and accessible nonlinear story.
Act 1: Set-Up
It’s Valentines Day and Joel Barish awaits a train to work. Suddenly, Joel decides not to go to work today, and impulsively hops the train on the opposite track to Montauk.
This first scene introduces us to Joel, one of our main characters, through visuals but also voiceover. Joel is lonely, not impulsive, and wishes he could meet someone new.
Joel first sees Clementine on the beach in Montauk.
On the train back home, Joel and Clementine meet. Coincidentally they are both going to Rockville Centre. Joel drives Clementine home and she invites him up for a drink. Joel and Clementine are developing feelings for each other. They go to the frozen Charles River together the following night.
When they return the next morning a young man, Patrick, knocks on Joel’s car window and asks him “what are you doing here?”
We cut to Joel crying in his car at night driving home.
Act 1: Catalyst
When Joel arrives home he notices a white van outside his apartment building. Joel goes inside to get his mail. He receives a letter from a company called Lacuna and cuts a casual chat about Valentine’s Day with a neighbor short.
He looks outside and notices the van again. Joel goes to his friends Carrie and Rob and explains how he had gone to Clementine’s job to give her a Valentine’s gift and not only was she there with another guy, she acted as if she didn’t know who Joel was.
This prompts Rob to show Joel a notice stating that Clementine has had Joel erased from her memory – This is the catalyst of the film, the note changes Joel’s world and also changes everything we’ve seen up to this point.
Act 1: Debate
Joel goes to Lacuna to investigate. The secretary, Mary, takes Joel back to see the Doctor. Joel is entirely skeptical of what they do at Lacuna and doesn’t believe it is even possible to have someone erased from their memory.
He continues to struggle with this idea with Carrie and Rob.
Act 2A: Break into Two/ Plot Point 1
Joel goes back to Lacuna. He has decided to have Clementine erased from his memory as well – this is Plot Point 1! Joel’s decision to have his memories erased sets off the events of the rest of the film. It’s the protagonist actively making a decision to pursue his goal.
The doctor instructs him to go home and collect everything he owns that could possibly remind him of Clementine, and explains that they will use these items to create a map of their relationship in Joel’s mind. The actual erasure will happen in Joel’s home so he can wake up in his own bed as if nothing ever happened.
Act 2A: Fun & Games
The Doctor, Howard Mierzwiak and his technician Stan begin the map-making procedure on Joel, then, the procedure is continued by Stan and Patrick in Joel’s home that night. We only now get a better introduction to the Lacuna team including Stan, Patrick and Mary. They hang out and chat and drink beers while erasing Joel’s memories.
We also see a series of weird incomplete clips of Joel’s memories where Clementine abruptly vanishes.
It’s also revealed that Patrick is using Joel’s old possessions to get closer to Clementine.
Act 2A-Act 2B Transition: The Mid-point
With the Lacuna team slacking off, Joel begins to subconsciously realize his memories are being erased. He takes Clementine and tries to hide her in his childhood memories where she doesn’t belong.
This is the “switch” of the story; originally, Joel wanted to erase the memories of Clementine, but now he wants to keep them.
Act 2B: Transition/ Tensions Rise
Stan and Mary realize Joel is off the map and call in Howard for help. Mary finds out that she had been in a relationship with Howard and had it erased from her memory.
Act 2B/3 Transition: Plot Point 2
Joel and Clementine go to Joel’s last remaining memory of their relationship, the first day they met. Before it’s erased Clementine whispers to Joel “Meet me in Montauk” – this is Plot Point 2!
Mary leaves Lacuna.
Act 3: The Epilogue
Patrick delivers Joel and Clementine’s files from Lacuna, which is where we left off with him in Act 1. So, this tells us that Joel and Clementine’s relationship in Act 1 is their second time meeting after they’ve both had their memories of each other erased.
At first, they have trouble understanding what actually went on between them since their feelings for each other at this moment couldn’t be more different. They come to terms with the fact that their feelings will probably change but decide to continue their relationship anyway.
The writing in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is definitely a key factor in the film’s popularity. Although the film is quite sad, there are funny moments and super engaging characters that keep us moving through this crazy ride through time and human emotion.
Marissa Caico is a recent grad in Film Studies (CUNY Queens College, 2018) and is interested in all aspects of the craft. She loves food, art, and traveling. Some of her favorite movies include Napoleon Dynamite, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, Stranger Than Paradise, and Paris Is Burning.