Like many real-life technologies, Lacuna sells itself as a quick fix solution to moving on – the spotless mindVasily Koloda on Unsplash

2024 marks the 20-year anniversary of director Michael Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s unforgettable Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – a poignant exploration of love and nostalgia with a science fiction twist. Jim Carrey plays the introverted Joel whose relationship with eccentric Clementine (Kate Winslet) has fallen apart. As the film reveals, Joel has undergone a process offered by the elusive Lacuna Inc. to erase Clementine from his memory and allow him to move on. While Joel undergoes the process of erasure, he journeys back through the timeline of his relationship, ultimately regretting his decision to forget both the treasured and tormenting memories of his former partner. Kaufman’s screenplay is a mastery of genre-blending, delicately balancing the film’s emotional core with its more farcical sci-fi plot points.

“As Eternal Sunshine reminds us, remembrance is a powerful tool”

Since Eternal Sunshine’s release, technology has become irrevocably bound up with our experiences of modern romance. Instant messaging has enabled couples to sustain their relationships across long distances, forming connections on digital platforms that keep records of each conversation. The evolution and increased popularity of dating apps such as Tinder and Hinge has transformed the dating landscape, widely increasing the accessibility of romantic prospects for their patrons. These apps offer a compacted version of dating, as the multiplex components of a real person are reduced to a few snapshots upon which the app offers an ultimatum: left or right, match or no match.

In many ways, the advent of these apps has enhanced the modern dating experience, broadening the scope of an otherwise limited dating pool and providing exciting new opportunities for connection. But while technology has advanced to assist the forming of new relationships, we are yet to create mechanisms that, like the fictional Lacuna Inc. of Eternal Sunshine, can help us erase them. Our phones, so intricately weaved into the fabric of our lives, are pocket-sized containers of the components of our relationships. Yes, we can go through the motions of erasure by deleting photos, blocking numbers or wiping messages. Despite these attempts, however, technology has not yet evolved to navigate the complex maze of emotion and subjectivity that make up human memory.

As Eternal Sunshine reminds us, remembrance is a powerful tool. When Joel makes the decision to erase Clementine from his memory, he does so out of anger and pain. Technology offers him a permanent solution that many of us would leap at if given the opportunity. But as the film so beautifully demonstrates, the passionate anger which prompts his decision is born out of love, and Joel’s journey back through his own memories allows him to remember why he and Clementine were together in the first place.

Eternal Sunshine reminds us that sometimes it is the challenging introspections that can teach us the most”

Like many real-life technologies, Lacuna sells itself as a quick fix solution, exploiting the depth of emotion that the human mind is capable of to present the appeal of a blank slate – the spotless mind. It is far easier to suppress or erase entire relationships than it is to process the pain and grief that accompanies the loss of a break-up.

A quick scour of current social media trends reveals the popular phrase ‘no contact’ that encompasses the easy access technology offers to completely eliminate ex-partners or ex-friends. Contemporary rhetoric stresses the importance of ‘moving on’– there’s boundless pressure to throw yourself into your ‘single era’, find a ‘rebound’ or build a ‘roster’. Equally, social media encourages the total obliteration of any evidence of an ex-partner with self-help content advertising techniques such as deleting all photos and messages. Much like the procedure undertaken by Joel to eradicate memories of places, songs and souvenirs that remind him of Clementine, an ex in 2024 is little more than the digital footprint they leave behind. And we’re all too aware that this evidence of their existence can be removed without a trace.

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One Lacuna employee quotes Nietzsche to justify the company’s service: “Blessed are the forgetful, for they get the better even of their blunders.” Forgetfulness can indeed be a blessing and moving on is a necessary step towards embracing a brighter future. But what Eternal Sunshine demonstrates is that this process is never linear or simple. For Joel, his memories of Clementine allow him to see the beauty of their past relationship even after it has crumbled. As he undergoes the procedure to remove Clementine from his brain, he realises how desperately he wants to remember her. Their inexplicable bond remains after the erasure process: even as complete strangers the lovers are drawn to each other once again. Their ending highlights the necessity of memory, no matter how desperately or proudly we may try to run from it.


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Beyond the queer love story

The creative blend of romance and science fiction tropes within Eternal Sunshine speaks to the complicated nature of our relationship with love and technology and feels all the more relevant twenty years after its release. While it is unlikely that memory-erasure will become the post-break-up cure-all of our generation, it’s worth asking how far technology has already succeeded in overriding the difficult experiences that come with being a human maintaining human relationships. Already technology categorises our relationships into simple yet terminal tasks – block or unblock, follow or unfollow, keep or delete. Eternal Sunshine reminds us that sometimes it is the challenging introspections that can teach us the most, and this is a process that technology can never authentically replicate.