The term “auteur” has historically been thrown around a lot a bit haphazardly, preemptively. Auteur theory was popularized by the likes of Francois Truffaut (a film critic who made films that examined the constructedness of filmmaking) in his Cahiers du Cinema, with cinematic juggernauts like Hitchcock and Welles regarded worshipfully as the de facto examples. Since then the term has been co-opted, hung on the name of every fledgling director who showed a bit of vision and promise. Christopher Nolan is the real thing.
His first film was Following, an extremely low-budget (damn near guerrilla) film that made the festival circuit but never broke the mainstream. Then came Memento; it was unlike anything audiences had ever seen before. Insomnia, the Prestige, Batman Begins and the Dark Knight…Nolan is one of the most celebrated and accomplished contemporary filmmakers working today. His films are dark and sophisticated, complex and intense. He gets huge box office draw working with themes and structures that in any other hands would be considered too esoteric, too abstruse for the common (American) audience. His work is consistently critically and commercially successful, and yet he has succeeded in retaining his own unique voice in his films, his auteurism, despite the fact that he is now working from deeply within the Hollywood machine. Not unlike Hitchcock himself, really.
Inception is Nolan’s latest achievement, and in many ways it is almost an homage to his earlier work. Written, produced and directed by Nolan himself (as he has done with the majority of his films, save for the script for the adapted Insomnia), Inception is the latest entrant into Nolan’s spiraling world of colliding realities, multi-layered and ever-shifting. Here Nolan goes back to his basics: delving deep into the fractured minds of damaged men to explore their own delicate and imbalanced realities.
Inception is the bigger, glossier, more sci-fi oriented brother of Memento, which was more of a straightforwardly (though non-linear) psycho-drama film noir. But Inception echoes of Memento at every turn: a man whose entire sense of reality is in question, whose own memories can’t be trusted, who has lost a wife and is desperate to bring her back, even though he knows he cannot. Sci-fi action thriller or psychological mindfuck, the question Nolan is ultimately asking is this: how much do we lie to ourselves to preserve our own fragile psyches? Or, in a pedantic theoretical sense, if we construct our own realities how can we ever really know what’s real…and is there even such a thing?
It would be a mistake to compare this film to emotionally void yet visually stunning action flicks like The Matrix, though the multi-tiered layers of so-called reality make the comparison inevitable (Cronenberg’s eXistenZ also comes to mind, as does Sergei Lukyanenko’s concept of the Gloom in his Day Watch novels, in which each layer is increasingly more dangerous and unstable, threatening to claim its victims and make them forget their own realities). But what could have been just another frivolous summer blockbuster, a sci-fi companion to Ocean’s Eleven, is instead a fairly intricate character study.
Cobb – the name itself taken straight from the duplicitous main character in Nolan’s own Following – is an Extractor: he steals people’s dreams. Or, rather, he breaks into people’s dreams in order to steal information, a kind of high-stakes cerebral heist. For reasons that are revealed as the plot unfolds, Cobb (played coolly by Leonardo DiCaprio, with a hint at the inner turmoil about to bubble over) decides to take on a very risky assignment, one which promises to free him once and for all so he can return to his children: an inception, planting an idea rather than stealing one. He enlists the help of other professional thieves and scientists (including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Cillian Murphy, Ken Watanabe, and Nolan regular Michael Caine), and together they contrive a plan for inception which ultimately requires multiple layers of dreams-within-dreams, numerous faux-realities to construct, and increased levels of danger with every dream level traversed. But during the course of the planning and implementation of the inception, Cobb’s own destructive past is slowly revealed, making him a threat to himself and his team.
And this is where Inception fails: in all of Nolan’s films, each character is given a level of depth too little seen in mainstream films. Here, the characters simply are not developed enough for the audience to feel true empathy. The lack of development could have been salvaged by strong performances, but auxiliary cast members were forgettable (except perhaps Murphy, as the inception target), and our lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio – a fierce talent in certain roles – lacked the intensity necessary to carry the film. The audience does not feel the same self-deluding desperation that Guy Pearce gave us in Memento, or the same torturous obsession Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale exhibited in The Prestige, or even just the internal conflict of Bale as Batman. Nolan’s films are by trademark psychologically probing character studies, regardless of what kind of genre they’re packaged in; here it felt as if Inception tried to be both fully a mind-bending sci-fi thriller AND a quiet descent into the darkest depths of men’s minds…without ever really succeeding at being either.
The one exception here is Marion Cotillard, who plays Cobb’s deceased wife Mal (“evil”) who remains very much alive in his subconscious. Cotillard (whose delightfully wicked turn in Love Me If You Dare should not be missed) is exactly what she needs to be, playing the haunted memory of a troubled wife whose death Cobb is somehow responsible for. She is not a fully-developed character, nor is she supposed to be. Instead, she is a fully-developed obsession, a culmination of all of Cobb’s desires and regrets. She is angry, vengeful, and destructive. She is love and revenge. Her eyes are wild, a feral foil to Cobb’s attempted placidity, betraying his own turmoil roiling beneath the quiet surface. DiCaprio plays Cobb’s secrets discreetly, losing control only when at his most vulnerable – in his dreams, with Mal.
Another issue lies with the development of the Cobb character: his motivations are never really clear – or just don’t entirely make sense. By the end of Memento, it was clear that Leonard Shelby had actively made the decision to continue believing the story he himself created – that his wife had been killed when he was attacked and lost his short-term memory and he was trying to avenge her death – when it reality it was HE who killed her, he was Sammy Jankis, and he conscious mind could not accept what he had done so he continued perpetuating his own false reality in which he plays the avenging hero with a conveniently unreliable memory, leaving himself planted clues to the “killer’s” identity. Inception unravels here (SPOILER ALERT: SKIP TO NEXT PARAGRAPH): if Cobb were indeed still in a dream at the end, what is his motivation for staying there? In this dream world Mal is dead and his children are lost to him; if he could make the decision to descend to another dream level in which they were all together why wouldn’t he do so, if he were already choosing to stay in a dream as it was? A true Memento-era Nolan twist would have been that Cobb became convinced their world wasn’t real, killed his wife to prove it only to find out he was wrong, and decided to escape to a dream world in which she committed suicide instead. This begs the question: has Hollywood softened Nolan?
Nolan’s trademark devices are all in place: an eerily epic score that conveys as much emotion as the actors’ faces; softly-lit flashbacks of tender moments tinged with longing and regret; repeated refrains and images which seem innocuous enough at first until they gain a heavy significance as the plot progresses. But with his newly developed skills as an action film director, Nolan pulls out a gorgeously orchestrated piece of cinematic choreography as characters in a second-tier dream fight inside a rolling hallway, where all sense of orientation is lost and they leap from ceiling to floor to wall. Visuals such as the city of Paris rolling over onto itself are stunning, yet also oddly deemphasized. This visceral film is less about manipulating dream cities and walking on walls and more about navigating the realms of subconscious desires.
Though not quite as non-linear as its precursor Memento, Inception’s resolution is less clear, and less satisfying. No doubt this will benefit from a second viewing, but despite its flaws Inception is another solid example of Nolan’s quiet character studies delving into the darkest natures of man packaged in all the pretty Hollywood glitz to get popcorn audiences in the door and keep academics referencing it in film journals for years to come. A weak film from an auteur of this caliber is still a towering achievement over most others, and even if Hollywood has softened Nolan (or, more likely, forced him to soften himself), a film like Inception is still more daring than most other big-budget blockbusters. You may not get the emotional investment you’ve come to expect from Nolan, but he still does not disappoint the intellect.
Now playing in theatres everywhere.