Women in Science Fiction Week: Mary Svevo: ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s Other Strong Female Character

Kirsten Dunst as Mary Svevo in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Guest post written by Amanda Civitello.

Warning: spoilers ahead!!

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is precisely the kind of science fiction movie I like: a film in which the futuristic, scientific aspects are so well integrated into the plot that there is never a moment when the premise is implausible, a moment in which the audience is compelled to step outside the world of the film and remark, “I don’t believe it.” The viewer’s willingness to accept that world, and even to recognize it as her own, is part of what makes the very best films of the genre so disquieting. I realize that this isn’t everyone’s opinion of the genre, but mine was formed young. I was ten when my dad first let me watch Jurassic Park, even though it was released some three years prior. I wasn’t the type of child to watch potentially frightening movies, and he only let me watch it because he wanted me to see a movie with a lead female scientist. Curiously enough –and much to my dad’s surprise – what terrified me wasn’t the CGI dinosaurs, or the deadly snakes and the electric fences, but rather the concept of the film. The fact that it wasn’t so difficult for me to imagine a world in which a place like Jurassic Park could exist. I’d been to zoos and theme parks; Dolly the sheep had just been cloned. I could believe that sometime, in the not-so-distant future, a similar theme park might not be so far-fetched. Consequently, I was petrified. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind lacks the outright scare value of a film like Jurassic Park or Alien, but still delivers an unsettling punch.

When Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind made its debut, critics and audiences alike were charmed by Charlie Kaufman’s intelligent,engaging screenplay, which marries an enjoyable love story with the kind of philosophical introspection that viewers have come to expect from a Kaufman film. The “spotless mind” of the title, a reference to Alexander Pope’s poem Eloisa to Abelard, refers to the premise of the film: people choosing to alter their memories through Lacuna, a medical company which performs “targeted memory erasure” designed to erase only specific people or events from the patient’s memory. Performed through a mixture of science and art, the procedure relies on “mapping” the subject’s brain when the specific memories are triggered, and then selectively erasing those memories while the patient is sedated. Patients bring any objects associated with the undesired memories to the company, which then disposes of them, so that potential triggers, which could compromise the efficacy of the erasure, are minimized. Similarly, patients’ friends who might inadvertently mention the undesired memories are made aware of the situation and requested not to mention them in the subject’s presence.

The various story arcs concern patients and employees at Lacuna: Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (KateWinslet), lovers who independently seek out Lacuna’s services to forget one another, Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), who “diagnoses” patients, Stan (Marc Ruffalo) and his assistant Patrick (Elijah Wood), the memory erasure technicians, and Mary (Kirsten Dunst), the company’s receptionist. The ensemble cast rises to the occasion with compelling performances, particularly, as many critics noted, from Kate Winslet, whose portrayal of Clementine, something of an eccentric extrovert, garnered much critical attention. Clementine is praised as a much-needed strong female lead in a love story, because she pursues Joel, is firmly in charge of her own affairs, and takes great pleasure in telling brooding, artistic Joel that she has no intention of becoming his muse. As she puts it, “Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s lookin’ for my own peace of mind.” In a time when many female leads are typecast as the hero’s romantic ideal, Clementine’s insistence on being taken for the woman she is, not the woman her lover wants her to be, is refreshing. Far from a quirky, plucky, childlike heroine who serves to inspire her moody boyfriend (the so-called “ManicPixie Dream Girl”), she’s unafraid to assert her individuality, speak her mind, and do as she pleases, dressing as she likes and dying her hair a rainbow of colors when the mood takes her. She can be uncompromising, brusque and matter-of-fact, but she makes her thoughts known. It’s Clementine who first seeks out Lacuna to erase her memories of Joel when she grows bored with him, feeling that his more quiet nature is trapping her. It’s easy to see why she’s easily the film’s “strong female character” and Winslet received an Oscar nod for her work.

Kate Winslet as Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
But the film stars another woman, albeit in a more supporting role within the cast: Kirsten Dunst, who gives a sensitive portrayal of Mary, a character who is in many ways the polar opposite of Clementine. Mary is quiet, almost mousy. She wears rather plain, unobtrusive clothes. At work, she wears a smart white lab coat, as if to reinforce the medical nature of the proceedings, and answers the phone in the same measured tone of voice, responding to all queries with variations on the same stock phrases. Her inner extrovert manifests only after a combination of alcohol and pot, which lead her (and Stan) to have a wild dance party, including jumping half-dressed on the bed while Joel’s memory is being erased. Mary is, however, a woman who knows her own mind as the film progresses. She exchanges her seemingly blind devotion to Lacuna and Dr. Mierzwiak for her own brand of individual agency. By the end, it’s clear why: Mary has had her memory altered by Dr. Mierzwiak, after what appears to be some convincing on his part, when the affair they’d been having was discovered by his wife. The knowledge, if not the memory, of this seems to jolt Mary into coming into her own. Unfortunately, all this occurs in the last ten minutes of the film. For whatever reason, Mary is most definitely a sidelined supporting character, whose potential is never fully realized in the cinematic release, as director’s commentary and the trivia about the shooting script attest.
Clementine, to be sure, isn’t always a paragon of girl power: as any realistic, well-developed character would, she has her moments of insecurity and uncertainty. In several scenes, for example,she begs, “don’t ever leave me, Joely.” Mary’s insecurities seem to run deeper; where Clementine’s appear to be exceptions to her normal behavior, lack of self-confidence seems to be Mary’s norm. The film, as one would expect something so thoughtfully crafted and well-edited, makes effective arguments about the two characters, by making use of visual imagery and the wonderful soundtrack. We are meant to read Clementine as strong-willed and Mary as rather pathetic.

Smart directorial and script decisions carry the argument against Mary further. There’s a vibrancy of color to Clementine’s scenes – even the ones that take place outside of Joel’s memory – that’s wholly absent in Mary’s. Clementine’s clothes, particularly a favorite orange sweatshirt and ever-changing hair color, are more visually arresting than are Mary’s sedate, professional daywear. Clementine’s scenes are marked by a sense of urgency and excitement. Mary’s dancing scene, the only one in which she could be described as“energetic,” has more of a frenzy about it. Clementine is exuberant and effervescent; even Mary’s exuberant moment is tempered by a degree of desperation. She’s only having fun because she’s stoned.

Like Clementine, Mary is the pursuer, not necessarily the pursued, though both have eager men interested in them. In Clementine’s case, Patrick quite obviously pursues her, using questionable techniques involving objects and memories filched from Joel while his memory is being replaced. Mary is the object of Stan’s affection, and it’s even implied that they live together; she only has eyes for Dr. Mierzwiak, whom she attempts to woo with poetry. The film presents Mary’s attempts to charm Dr. Mierzwiak as the counterpoint to Clementine’s successful pursuit of Joel. Where we see an image of empowerment in Clementine’s efforts, the kind of go-get that is frequently attached to male roles, Mary’s are sadly pathetic and desperate. We pity Mary as she recites her quotes to Dr. Mierzwiak and wince along with him when she refers to “Pope Alexander.” He reacts indulgently, as if she’s a child in need of congratulations and encouragement for telling him things he already knows,and so do we. The set up of the shot helps in this regard: Mary is seen from a distance, curled up in an arm chair, while Dr. Mierzwiak is seen in close profile, typing away at the computer to fix errors in Joel’s erasure. She’s superfluous; he’s integral. We are as unimpressed as he is with her quotation-book poetry (and in the end, it’s clear that he might have heard these same quotes during their previous relationship). Given what happens next, Mary’s quote choices are eerily prescient. She’s the one who comments on the beauty of the work, about art and science, in her dreamy voice, and considers what the targeted memory erasure means for their clients, and who ultimately makes the difficult ethical choice to release the company’s files when she discovers the coercion in her own erasure. Why can’t Mary be a thinker, too?

The viewer takes for granted that Clementine will have something of a philosophy, even if that philosophy happens to be, “I’m not a concept,” a phrase which reminds us outright that while it’s tempting, she’s not about to be boxed in to a label denoting her as, for want of better shorthand, an archetypal “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” She is capable of making that statement about her identity. One never imagines that Mary would to do anything like that, and indeed, the film actively argues against that expectation for her. What’s interesting, however, is that the film originally provided for more of Mary’s back story.

In the cinematic release, Mary never confronts Dr. Mierzwiak about her discovery, so we never have the opportunity to see her speak up for herself, thus denying her character the kind of assertiveness that so characterizes Clementine. With the traumatic discovery of her abortion (at the urging of Dr. Mierzwiak) excised from the film, Mary’s decision to release the documents becomes more of a convenient deus ex machina than a manifestation of her agony: she mails out the files in a fit of pique, motivated by anger, so that there’s a plausible narrative reason for Joel and Clementine to make another attempt at their relationship. It makes for a better, more polished and satisfying ending for the film, but I’m glad that the director’s commentary mentions Mary’s sad tale.

Earlier in Pope’s long poem, he writes: “Though cold like you, unmov’d and silent grown/ I have not yet forgot myself to stone.” If Clementine knows her own mind and her own worth from the outset, Mary figures it out as the film progresses. Despite everything, including the Lacuna intervention-by-brain-damage, Mary manages not to forget herself entirely. The only disappointment with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is that the film ends just as we’re starting to find out who she is.

Amanda Civitello is a freelance writer based in Chicago and Northwesternalum. She contributed a review of Daphne for the Bitch Flicks LGBTQI themeweek. You can find her on Twitter at @amcivitello and at amandacivitello.squarespace.com.


  • Posted July 26, 2012 at 12:45 am | Permalink

    i love thisc this characters are post.ertainly key and deserved to have been explored in the manner in which you did

  • Posted January 13, 2013 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

    Stan’s “I really liked you Mary Svevo” confession towards the end of the film is in my opinion the scene that lifts the entire film into the sky.

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