A close-up on the sleeping face of Joel Barish (Jim Carrey). He opens his eyes slowly and looks at the daylight outside his windows in a point-of-view shot. The bedroom is bathed in a cold blue light, matching his navy pajamas. Outside, he ambles to his car and notices that it's badly scraped and dented on the driver's side. Frustrated, he pulls out a piece of notepaper and leaves a note on the neighboring car reading, "Thank You!!!"
Later, he waits on a train platform "To New York" with dozens of other commuters, many of them chatting amongst themselves. Joel, though, is alone. In his voiceover, he says that today is Valentine's Day 2004, which he thinks is a holiday to make people feel like crap. In a wide shot from up above, Joel runs off the platform and in his voiceover, informs the viewer that he skipped work and went to Montauk that day.
He runs to the other side of the train tracks and dives onto the Long Island Rail Road train going in the opposite direction from the city. In voiceover, he says that he is not an impulsive person. Cut to a long shot of Joel on a pay phone, alone on the platform at Montauk. It's snowing. He calls his office and tells them he has food poisoning. Cut to Joel walking along the beach alone, freezing. He opens his journal, filled with words and sketches, and notices that pages have been torn out. He does not remember doing this, and starts writing his first entry in two years.
A woman in a bright orange sweatshirt appears on the beach. Joel sees her and wishes that he could meet someone new, but claims to be incapable of making eye contact with a woman he doesn't know. He describes his last girlfriend, Naomi, as "nice." He sits in a diner and the woman from the beach is there. Her hair is bright blue. She pours a shot of whiskey into her coffee and they make eye contact. Joel wonders why he falls in love with every woman who shows him any attention. The same woman re-appears on the train platform and Joel looks away. She waves to him and he waves back. On the train, Joel draws a picture of her. Finally, she says hello and comes to sit near him.
They discover they are both traveling to the same place and she thinks he looks familiar. He is receptive to her conversation, politely responding as she describes her changing hair colors. She introduces herself as Clementine and asks him not to joke about her name, but he says he doesn't know any jokes about her name. Clementine is erratic and opinionated, the seeming opposite of Joel. After they get off the train, Joel offers Clementine a ride, and she accepts. She apologizes for coming off "nutso" and invites him upstairs for a drink. Her apartment is appropriately quirky, as is the cocktail she makes him called "The Blue Ruin." He mumbles that he's not that interesting and that his journal is blank. Clementine leans on Joel and tells him that he's nice and predicts that she is going to marry him. He gets nervous and leaves, but promises to call her.
Back at home, Joel has a lightness in his step. He calls Clementine almost right away, with a big smile on his face. There is something brewing between them, and they decide to go to the Charles River the next night. Cut to Clementine's boots as she steps onto the frozen river, encouraging a nervous Joel along. They lie on the ice next to each other and look at the stars. In the daylight, Joel drives while Clementine sleeps in the passenger seat. She asks him if she can come to his house to sleep, but first, she goes to her apartment get her toothbrush. As Joel waits in the car outside, a young man (whom we will later learn is Patrick) knocks on his window. Patrick asks Joel, "Can I help you with something?" Joel is confused, and the strange young man walks away.
The picture fades to black, and when it fades back in, it's dark. Joel sits in the driver's seat of his car, crying. The natural sound drops out and the song "Everybody's Got To Learn Sometime" fills the soundtrack. He drives alone through the rainy streets, distraught. Later, Joel walks through the street and we see him from another man's perspective. A white van follows him as he enters his apartment building, and the drivers are audibly giggling, saying, "That's him!"
From the opening frames of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, director Michel Gondry anchors his audience firmly inside Joel Barish's mind. The film begins with a shot from Joel's point-of-view, just as he wakes up in the morning. This seems like a straightforward, clear-cut scene, but there are certain visual cues that indicate that something is off. The color palette is cold and severe, enhancing Joel's feeling of alienation from his life. Outside, when Joel notices the dent in his car, he has no idea how it got there, but assumes that his neighbor is responsible. Instead of confronting his neighbor directly, Joel writes "Thank You!!!" on a piece of paper and leaves it on his neighbor's windshield. This simple gesture says a great deal about Joel's personality - he blames others for his problems and he does not like confrontation.
Without fully understanding why, Joel is feeling melancholy. Through his voiceover, Joel claims to hate Valentine's Day. There is an air of heartbreak about him, especially as he runs away from the train that would take him to work and squeezes onto a different train to Montauk. The stark emptiness of the Montauk scenes echoes the flat, emotionless thoughts in Joel's mind. Joel's journal is a physical embodiment of his listlessness - he leafs through it and seems puzzled that he hasn't written in it for two years.
In starting the film with a simple and straightforward set of scenes, Michel Gondry introduces his characters and demonstrates the innate chemistry between Joel and Clementine. In his positive review of the film, Roger Ebert writes, "[Gondry and Kaufman] center their characters so that we can actually care about them even when they're constantly losing track of their own lives."
Gondry and Kaufman have said that the film is indeed intended for multiple viewings. The conversation that Joel and Clementine have on the train back from Montauk takes on a different meaning once the viewer knows the history between them (even though Joel and Clementine themselves do not know this information). This scene, though undramatic on the surface, naturally repeats the dynamic of their past relationship. Clementine is the instigator, often getting closer to Joel than he is comfortable with. He is too withdrawn to embrace her outward personality and continually squashes her efforts to connect. Despite having erased one another, they quickly fall back into their old pattern.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a rare, successful example of Maze Cinema - a style in which the story coils back on itself. However, this is not a random structural choice on the part of Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman. Instead, the structure of the film is what makes it subjective, allowing the viewer access to Joel Barish's mind. The first shots of the film are the same as the last, but by the end of the film, the viewer has a much different perspective on what it means when Joel Barish wakes up alone and confused.