I finally saw Christopher Nolan’s Inception at the Drafthouse last weekend. I intended to view it at the IMAX where I caught a midnight screening of The Dark Knight, which preceded an ill-timed traffic jam on the upper deck of I-35. Fresh from witnessing Heath Ledger’s terrifying performance as the Joker, I feared imminent doom. Luckily, the bottleneck was caused by a minor car accident that left both parties unharmed.
But as I filed in for Friday’s 10:30 showing, I wondered if the movie would live up to its colossal hype. Nolan’s reputation looms over each of his productions, and his mastery of filmic slight of hand promised that, if Inception wasn’t in Memento‘s league, it might still keep good company with The Prestige. A month following its auspicious box office debut, I had my suspicions. The movie is about extractor Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) leading a team who implant the idea that heir Robert Michael Fischer (Cillian Murphy) cede from the empire built by his mogul father Maurice (Pete Postlethwaite). The squad is employed by businessman Saito (Ken Wantanabe), who represents its chief competitor. Dana Stevens’s tentative write-up was my first alarm, as was the Oscar buzz generated amongst fanboys that Snarky’s Machine noted in her review.
Nonetheless, I was intrigued. Caitlin at Dark Room raved about it, arguing that it bested The Matrix. Pioneer film theorists David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson cataloged many of the movie’s intriguing ideas. Capitalizing on the fervent anticipation of Mad Men‘s fourth season, Pop Watch noted that Inception is essentially telling the same story as AMC’s flagship melodrama (the post also linked to Michael Newman’s blog entry about how the series functions as an allegory for Matthew Weiner’s anxieties over the creative process).
But after all that chatter, what did I think about Inception? Eh. It was okay. The visuals were captivating and the storyline was relatively accessible. I think it’s more of an interesting movie to talk about than watch, though the 140 minutes flew by more briskly than I had anticipated.
I had reservations about Ellen Page playing an architect named Ariadne, but I bought her as a grad student whose speech never overshadows her fancy kerchiefs. Her scenes with mastermind Cobb lack air, but that’s just as much DiCaprio’s fault. Their characters display an intimate connection. Ariande feels comfortable enough with Cobb to utter the movie’s most overtly feminist line when asking of his inability to let go of his wife’s death “Do you think you can create a prison of memories to lock her in? Do you think that’s going to contain her?” But both overuse a knit brow to connote a wellspring of emotion while conveying very little. Though I concur with Stevens on preferring DiCaprio in lighter fare over attempts at Serious Acting, a Nolan picture tends to ensure labored acting.
Joseph Gordon Levitt has moments as point man Arthur, particularly in the breath-taking zero gravity sequence. Saito and chemist Yusef (Dileep Rao) are given little to do beyond step out of the spotlight for the all-white principal cast. The only person clearly having a good time is forger Eames, who extracts information by convincingly becoming other people, including a flirty blonde who chats up Fischer. Tom Hardy mines the role’s seductive and queer camp potential, purring like a naughty cat who licked up all the cream.
Caitlin believed the main plot of engineering familial and corporate breach to be predictable, but I found its B-story to be its most obvious flaw. Cobb cannot shake the spectre of his dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), whose name literally means “bad” in her native French. Mal isn’t so much a psychologically damaged woman whose destructive actions in Cobb’s unconscious contrast with her sweet nature in life. Rather, she plays as a manifestation of feminist film theory’s complaints against cinema’s conception of women and its applications of psychoanalytic thought via the scopophilic gaze. Cotillard does what she can with the role, but it feels like she’s representing, say, Tania Modeleski’s criticisms in The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory. This may have been Nolan’s intention, but by rendering Mal as an archetypical femme fatale who Cobb must overcome, he only enforces the notion that female movie characters are not fully realized as complex people but instead mere ideations from the auteur’s mind.
That said, I do find the employment of Édith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien” to be particularly fascinating. It remains one of Piaf’s best-known tunes. Though she reportedly dedicated her 1960 recording to the French Foreign Legion during the Algerian War, the song is now thought of as a reflection on the singer’s dramatic biography, akin to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” It is also Inception‘s unofficial theme. Nolan continually referred to it when writing the script and hoped to put it in the movie. It serves as the squad’s alarm clock, bringing them back to consciousness following a mission and implying the emotional objectivity required in the work of hampering with other people’s dreams. Composer Hans Zimmer also threaded the song’s cadence throughout his overbearing score.
For me, it is also evidence that Cobb is still haunted by his wife. The song hails Mal’s French heritage, as well as her fearless break with reality. The song’s literal meaning can be read against Cobb’s feelings of regret and culpability toward the death of his wife. It also telegraphs Cotillard. In 2008, Cotillard won the Academy Award for Best Actress. She portrayed Piaf in Olivier Dahan’s La vie en rose, beating out Ellen Page in her titular performance in Juno and putting her in America’s A-list. Apparently Cotillard’s involvement in Inception was a happy accident. Initially after the actress was cast, Nolan intended to pick another song but Zimmer convinced him that the connection wouldn’t distract viewers. In doing so, however, it provided this viewer an infinite loop of interpretation.