"All That We See or Seem..." *
The latest film from that Master of Disorientation, Christopher Nolan—"Inception"—may be his most intricate puzzle yet. A nest of corporate spies, using dream-suggestion, steal secrets from business rivals to their clients. One such mission turns into a nightmare, and the team's leader, Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), accepts the subject (Ken Watanabe) of his previous mission's challenge: 1) to implant a suggestion into a rival while sleeping, which 2) requires a nested suggestion—"a dream within a dream"—to be pulled off, the reward being 3) Cobb will be given his dream come true, all inquiries into a previous tragedy will be dropped and he will be allowed to return to his home in the U.S., where his children await him.
To accomplish this, he must assemble a team: "The Architect," Ariadne (Ellen Page), who will design the dream-scape, "The Point-Man," Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who will monitor the progress of the mission and initiate the extrication from the dream, and "The Forger," (Tom Hardy), whose intricate research will reassure the subject that the dream has a basis in fact. Then, there's Cobb. An incredible asset, but a liability, he suffers from the guilt of not preventing the death of a previous team-mate, his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), who pops up in the shared dream-scapes to unravel the scheme and punish him. Of course, she's just his guilt talking. The team's emotions have as much importance in dreams as the images.
Something about this sound familiar to you...beyond the surface "Mission: Impossible" trappings, gene-spliced with a psychic "Fantastic Voyage?" An "Architect," like a set-designer, the "Point-Man," like a producer or location scout, the "Forger," like the cinematographer recreating verisimilitude, all illusionists dream-synced to accomplish a single goal; Nolan is talking about The Movies.
He isn't the first: Howard Hawks equated the social structure of any inter-dependent team with the circus of techs and talents involved in film-making, and Hitchcock frequently ruminated on how the movies were a dream-scape (that often turned into nightmares) with his highly subjective angles and cutting. But, Nolan—given his dream-projects—chooses to make movies that exploit and comment on the special illusory power of film: shifting narratives and time-lines, the power of the edit (and the critical when), the magic of movie-making that goes beyond simple photo-recording, and narratively bending that reality to your will. Movies are a dream, tapping into our psyches, and also influencing them, their ideas infecting us (as we're often told in the film) "like a virus.". One of the neatest narrative gambits in "Inception" is Cobb's rule for knowing you're in a dream: "Think—how did you get here?" In a movie, you're edited into a situation, dropped from one place to another with a single splice. Like magic. Like a dream.
In "Following," Nolan threw us into "the deep-end" of an obsessive-compulsive's life, fracturing the time-line, with our only clues to structure being the protagonist's appearance (like a dream). "Memento," we follow a man with cognitive dissonance, who can only retain a memory for 15 minutes, we alone are left to remember the dream to its beginning. "Insomnia" centers around a man who can't dream, and "The Prestige" tells its tales of magic and science while playing with the conventions of story-telling. Nolan's non-superhero films are all about movies—and how movies can be used to fool you, like a magician's trick. His weakest films depend on it to hold them together; more than just an editing "gimmick," the films would be pointless without the structure.
There is no doubt in my mind that Nolan equates the two—and he leaves a final layer of his dream-within-a-dream-scape on the soundtrack at the end of the film to take us out of it.** The film's last visual gambit also calls into question dream versus reality, but does so in a very filmic way. There has been some kvetching about that last shot being an obvious ploy to head-fuck—like the arbitrary shot of the ice-pick at the end of "Basic Instinct"—but that's missing the point: the significance of the shot is when Nolan cuts away from it. ***
When I did my "Now I've Seen Everything" piece on Nolan, I wrote this:
"In Media Res" is the term for one of his films, the lens aperture opening for a limited amount of time, and closing with events still in flux, the world changing, and the future uncertain. One has the sense of the film merely stopping, with the story-line continuing past the audience's part in it, again leading to a lack of fulfillment...or dread. In either case, one exits a Nolan film dis-oriented, uneasy...but not often dis-satisfied.
That still applies here. And Nolan gets to do his time-bending tricks in a significantly different way, revealing them in personal dreams, while maintaining a (rare for him) linear time-line. That strategy comes to fruition with a unique sequence where the team (and we) are plunged into deeper and deeper nested dreams, each with its own time-scale and dis-orientation, cutting back and forth between them as they progress at different speeds and different orientations (dependent on what is happening in the previous tier of dream-level). It is a bravura sequence that leaves one a bit breathless, shaking one's head that it is so intricately staged and communicated. I don't recall seeing anything quite like it.
There are little quibbles, of course: Nolan's dream-scapes never veer far into the surrealistic, remaining quite concrete in how things look and act, and the dream sequences maintain the hard-edged quality of movies and video-games (but, hey, it's Nolan's dreams); the third dream-level (which recalls a war/spy assault on an impenetrable mountain HQ) seems to be unaffected by the physical forces that so influence and warp the second; and the mission (and the entire movie is "the mission" making the general feel of the thing a bit slight) has a smug amoral satisfaction to it, that is vaguely disquieting, and no sense of good and evil (only profit and loss) which would give the movie some sort of conscious weight.
But these are minor distractions...vague notions in the subconscious while grooving on the movie. I don't think "Inception" is Nolan's best film (I vacillate between "The Dark Knight" and "The Prestige"), but as an exercise on the possibilities and power of film—as both medium and message—is a dense, intricate, satisfying film that's fun to puzzle out during and after its playing.
No, I have no regrets.
"Inception" is a Full-Price Ticket.
* From Poe's "A Dream Within a Dream," which, in imagery, rumination, and motivation, fits many of "Inception's" themes—it probably inspired many aspects of it:
Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow-
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.
I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep- while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?
** SPOILER ALERT: That audio clue is in the film's final minutes as Edith Piaf's emblematic "Non, je ne regrette rien" plays on the soundtrack until it is gradually replaced by the staticy thrum that indicates the waking process from the dream-scape; when it ends, the film ends. That it is used in the film as the team's traditional "safe-word" alarm to extricate them from a dream is the film's final tie-in to being a dream-state. It is significant that it is THIS song, as it is tied to Piaf so indelibly, and echoes as well to Marion Cotillard, who played the chanteuse in her Oscar-winning role in "La Vie en Rose," and here, plays Cobb's tragic wife, who represents his biggest regret. This is one of ripples running through "Inception," through layers and layers and layers. Like a glass onion.
*** And if you're looking for an answer to whether it's a dream or reality ("it's a FILM, dummy!"), just apply the "How did he get there?" rule: the whole movie is about "how he gets there."