Do memories define who we are? Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Christopher Nolan’s Memento each explore this question, though the final conclusions about the relationship between memory and identity are not as neatly aligned as the tools which present their respective answers to the audience. Both films give a philosophical position on personal identity in relation to memory which establishes the notion that memories do in fact help define who we are. But they also go beyond simply presenting how memories define us, delving into the realm of memory morality and the role of memory in regards to finding meaning. Ultimately, the films diverge into polarized views on how integral memory is on defining who we are- and, consequently, how much control we have over our own identity.
Both Eternal Sunshine and Memento present their narrative through a skewed discourse to put us directly within the head of the main character and to mimic the experience of memory itself. In this vein, both films begin the narrative at what is eventually revealed to be the last chronological event of their respective plots, and each film has two separate storylines which parallel each other, one traveling backwards while the other travels forwards. The technique especially helps in Memento, recreating the sense of confusion that is familiar to Leonard because he doesn’t know what happened previously. But it also has its use in Eternal Sunshine, letting us experience Joel’s relationship with Clementine as he travels backwards through his memories, eventually reaching the point where they first met. Both films revel in this altered discourse, using it as a catalyst to propel us into their stories in a manner that plays on how we feels when we remember an event.
The similarities between the two don’t stop at structure. Stripped to a simplistic level, both give us the perspective of a male protagonist who is struggling to find meaning in his life in the absence of his female lover; both focus on some form of memory erasure; through that erasure, both comment on how memory is linked to identity. The forms of the erasure differ, obviously. In Eternal Sunshine, Joel undergoes a true erasure, requesting an artificial process to delete memories from his brain entirely, hoping to escape the pain he wallows in. The erasure within Memento is more limited, though it is also more natural: due to brain damage from head trauma, Leonard lacks the ability to take information from his working memory and transfer it to long term memory; with this inhibition, Leonard is simultaneously a perpetual clean slate and a static persona. The distinctions are apparent: Leonard does not possess the ability to escape his sadness (he remarks, at one point, that he “can’t remember to forget” his dead wife), while Joel, even after the operation, does not seem any happier, and at the end of the film it is implied he begins a second relationship with Clementine, potentially entering a cycle in which he again becomes depressed because of Clementine.
In both cases, the sadness of each is partially blamed on their memories. Joel’s sadness is rooted, he thinks, in his memories of Clementine, and so he opts to have them removed. Leonard, similarly, is unable to stop thinking about his wife, as it is the first thing he remembers upon waking up each morning. Thus, both Joel and Leonard resort to a form of self-manipulation in order to combat their negative emotions. Joel, of course, undergoes the Lacuna procedure, tricking himself into believing he never even met Clementine. Leonard, in a more subtle manner of manipulation, tricks himself through repetition by remembering the Sammy Jenkins story, disassociating the memories of “Sammy” from his own, and through lies he tells himself by putting false information on the photographs and tattoos he relies on.
But Leonard and Joel aren’t simply altering their memories, at least not according to the films; they are also manipulating their own identities. In Memento, this distinction isn’t even subtle. Teddy repeatedly questions if Leonard knows who he is anymore, explicitly suggesting that Leonard may have known who he used to be, but without being able to make new memories (and thus not knowing what he has done since), Leonard no longer knows himself. This idea is rather poignantly shown in the Eternal Sunshine scene where Joel decides to hide Clementine in a memory unrelated to her; he forlornly states “I can’t remember anything without you.” Clementine has become ingrained in more than just Joel’s memories; she has slipped into part of Joel’s self as well.
But even as the two films posit a powerful relationship between memory and identity, they both challenge the robustness of that relationship. How important is the preservation of memories to our identity? “Memory’s not perfect,” as stated by Leonard. Both films roughly come to terms with the imperfection of the human memory system, showing how we still rely on memory, despite its limitation, to know who we are. However, it is also here that the films first begin to waver in their agreement on the memory-identity relationship.
In Memento, Leonard’s dependence on his photographs and tattoos (a dependence that the audience shares with him on a scene-by-scene basis) challenges whether Leonard’s identity is affected by the actions he takes but cannot remember, or whether he is perpetually stuck as the same Leonard after the incident.
Teddy: “You don’t know who you are.”
Leonard: “Yes I do. …I’m Leonard Shelby, I’m from San Francisco-”
Teddy: “That’s who you were. You do not know who you are, what you’ve become, since the incident.”
True to this conversation, Leonard is ignorant of most of his actions throughout the film, including his murder of Teddy. Is Leonard a killer? Perhaps to the outside world. But Memento creates an important distinction between the outside world and the world in one’s head, as Leonard states, “I have to believe in a world outside my own mind.” However, as he says this, he imagines a scene of his wife with a tattoo on his chest acknowledging his killing of her rapist, a scene the audience can safely assume to be false, as he does not currently have the tattoo on his chest, and his wife is already dead. This is also in the same scene Leonard has learned that he has, in fact, killed multiple people, and sets himself up to kill someone else. Does Leonard follow the world he believes in his head, or is there a truer reality in the outside world that he should believe in?
Eternal Sunshine encounters similar issues. After Joel’s memory is erased, does he know who he is anymore? Like Leonard, Joel is ignorant of a significant part of his life, but unlike Leonard, Joel is unaware of his ignorance. At its beginning the film hints that without his memories Joel doesn’t fully know who he is: “Took a train out to Montauk. I don’t know why. I’m not an impulsive person.” At the time, the audience is just as unsure as Joel as to why he does this, but later in the film we realize the implication of him going to Montauk, and in re-watching the film, the narrated thought of Joel’s confusion at his own actions makes it clear that he doesn’t understand a part of himself- because the part of him that does understand was erased.
As both films acknowledge the concurrent necessity and fallibility of relying on memory to recognize oneself, they hit the crux of their philosophical positions. Is the integrity of our memories intrinsically tied to our identities, and is this integrity also tied to, or perhaps more important, than our happiness?
In retracing through his memories of Clementine, Joel finds some that he wants to hold on to, especially one that he particularly does not want to get rid of, muttering “Please let me keep this memory, just this one.” This leads Joel to attempting to hide Clementine in other memories he possesses in an effort to not give her up completely. The change of heart Joel exhibits is clear: he either forgot or buried his good memories of Clementine under bad ones, and as he traverses through them one by one, he is reminded of the good ones that had been lost. But Joel fails, and he loses all trace of Clementine from his memory. Though this theoretically should free Joel from his depression at losing Clementine, the audience does not feel happy for Joel, as Christopher Grau notes in a paper on the film.
There is a sense of tragedy in Joel’s realization (while in the middle of the procedure) that he does not want to lose his memories of Clem, and the sadness the viewers feel with him is not lifted by the thought that he will eventually be ignorant of the loss. On the contrary, awareness of the future ignorance seems to compound the sadness: that he will soon be clueless is no cause for celebration.
Joel has lost more than just his memories; he has lost some personal truth about both reality and the world he experiences, and with that truth a piece of Joel’s identity is also lost. Eternal Sunshine takes a clear stance on this, giving us Mary, who has undergone the Lacuna procedure. In her subsequent ignorance she repeats her past mistakes, again becoming intimate with the married Howard. The anguish of Mary, as well as the emotion turmoil of Joel and Clementine as they listen to recordings of themselves at the end of the film, makes it clear to the audience that all three Lacuna patients feel robbed of part of themselves.
In the scene in Memento where Leonard differentiates that the world in his head is separate from the outside world, he comes to terms with the idea that his identity is what he believes it to be, regardless of what others think. He thus justifies his decision to fool himself into believing that Teddy is his John. G., and in his mind also justifies his eventual murder of Teddy.
I’m not a killer. I’m just someone who wanted to make things right. Can’t I just let myself forget what you’ve told me? Can’t I just let myself forget what you’ve made me do? You think I just want another puzzle to solve? Another John G. to look for? You’re John G. So you can be my John G… Will I lie to myself to be happy? In your case Teddy… Yes I will.
As Leonard states in the film, he only finds contentment, or at least the will to live, through his purpose of revenge. When Teddy shatters this purpose with his revelation that Leonard is living an illusion, Leonard decides to lie to himself in order to maintain a semblance of meaning in his life.
The morality of justice and murder aside, Leonard’s decision to lie to himself vies against the moral position that Eternal Sunshine asserts against this sort of memory manipulation. Eternal Sunshine especially places a heavy emphasis on learning from past mistakes, expressed rather emotionally when Joel regrets leaving the first time he met Clementine: “I wish I had stayed.” Without this revelation, Joel could potentially repeat his mistake later in life (as Mary did), though at the end of the film, Joel is able to run and stop Clementine from leaving after listening to a portion of his recorded cassette tapes. The heavy disapproval towards the Lacuna procedure reflects the film’s stance that memory is fundamental to identity, and that to purposefully deceive one’s memory is morally flawed. Without knowing our past (to the best of our ability), we are incomplete.
Conversely, Memento, through Leonard, tells us the opposite. “We all lie to ourselves to be happy.” Leonard’s identity, while partially dependent on his memory, is not wholly defined by his memory. “We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are. I’m no different.” Leonard is able to define his identity through what he believes about himself in a given moment. While Eternal Sunshine argues that what we believes about ourselves needs to be true to present an accurate picture of identity, Memento refutes such strict regulation. Leonard is perfectly amenable to sacrificing veracity in order to give his life meaning, and through meaning, contentment. For Leonard, identity is a more lenient term, and he consequentially possesses more control over who he is than Joel does; Leonard may be restricted by his memory impairment, but he is flexible in evaluating each “unknown” situation he finds himself in and incorporating this information to rediscover who he is in the moment. Joel, on the other hand, is imprisoned by his commitment to the idea that his identity is a stagnant concept. When he encounters himself performing an unfamiliar action (such as taking the train to Montauk) he doesn’t accept this as a part of his typical personality and thus is unable to figure why he would do such a thing. Joel never “looks in the mirror” in the manner that Leonard, literally and metaphorically, does.
Are we merely products of our memories? The answer, in the case of both films, is no. But Eternal Sunshine argues that we are the product of everything that has happened to us, and that the more we accurately remember, the better we know ourselves, and accurately knowing ourselves is important. Memento contrasts this argument with its own assertion that we aren’t the product of our memories, or even our entire past; identity is a fleeting and flexible concept that is only truly determinable by oneself, even if it isn’t true to an outside reality.
At the end of Eternal Sunshine, Joel and Clementine open themselves up to the idea of reattempting a relationship, despite knowing that their prior relationship did not work out. At the (chronological) end of Memento, Leonard kills Teddy, unaware he is not the real John G., and presumably Leonard will continue his endless cycle of hunting down his wife’s killer. Both films leave the protagonists with incomplete memories of their pasts as they (mostly) voluntarily begin these recycled actions, letting the audience wonder we would make the same decision Joel or Leonard made.