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Persistence of Memory

Memento takes the sensation of waking up in a strange bed beside a complete stranger and totalizes it. The movie is part Alice in Wonderland mind trip, part Point Blank revenge quest—a tale told in reverse order over a series of overlapping flashbacks. The video stores are filled with examples of retro-noir and neo-noir, but Christopher Nolan's audacious timebender is something else. Call it meta-noir.

As in Harold Pinter's Betrayal or Martin Amis's Time's Arrow, the temporal river flows backward—sequence by sequence, in 10-minute increments. Memento opens with a killing, then shows the buildup, then the events that lead up to that. Up until the last scene, it keeps beginning again. Each flashback triggers another. The gimmick serves to keep the viewer hyper-vigilant, but the narrative involves a second complication. Dependent on audience recollection, the movie features a protagonist who, traumatized by the murder of his wife and a blow to the head, has lost his short-term memory. Each scene starts with Leonard (Guy Pearce), blank and "innocent," confronting anew the mystery of how he got there.

Leonard is a former insurance-claims investigator searching, like the protagonist of The Fugitive, for his wife's killer—albeit navigating near-blind through time and space. He comes to consciousness in the midst of a chase and wonders who is running after (and shooting at) whom. He finds a guy stuffed in the closet and has to figure out if whatever happened took place in his motel room. (And if so, just how many has he rented?) Leonard stares at Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), the woman with whom he appears to have arranged a meeting, and puzzles why. Did she set him up to kill the ubiquitous Teddy (Joe Pantoliano)? Or rather, will she?

Reverse transcription: Pearce in Memento
photo: Newmarket
Reverse transcription: Pearce in Memento

Details

Memento
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan
A Newmarket release
Opens March 16

La Captive
Directed by Chantal Akerman
Written by Akerman and Eric de Kuyper from the novel by Marcel Proust
Walter Reade
March 15, 16, and 18

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As befits so meta a movie hero, Leonard is pitifully dependent on camera technology. "Since my injury, I can't make new memories," he explains more than once, sometimes to the same person. Upon meeting anyone for what could be the first time, he has to quickly take a Polaroid and scrawl a caption on the photo. Struggling to find a pen to note down some vital information before it slips away, this wildly unreliable narrator is a walking text. His pockets are full of annotated snapshots and his hands covered with addresses, but the crucial clues are tattooed, in mirror-friendly reversed lettering, across his torso: "John G. raped and murdered your wife."

Watching Memento is a unique experience: tense, irritating, and all-absorbing. Indeed, there is another chronological strand to consider. Leonard's backward-forward investigation, with each scene supposedly bringing us closer to the meaning of the events we've seen or knowledge of the trauma that inspired them, is intercut with black-and-white footage of Leonard in a motel room on the phone, telling the tale of an insurance claimant who suffered a similar condition. To whom is he talking? And when?

Slight and feral, Guy Pearce seems to tunnel into the movie, hurling himself repeatedly at the all-knowing characters, Natalie and Teddy—who, in perhaps creating Leonard and manipulating him to their own ends, complete the film's bizarre oedipal triangle. (The casting provides another subtext: Two veterans of The Matrix confound one of the framed heroes of L.A. Confidential.) Teddy, the man Leonard initially—or rather, ultimately—kills, could be his only friend or his cynical controller. In either case, his is the only alternative voice. It's Teddy who asks Leonard how he happens to be driving a Jaguar, or points out that, given Leonard's less than total recall, revenge would be pointless—he'd instantly forget it.

Adding several extra dimensions and considerable confidence to the 29-year-old Nolan's tricksy first feature, Following (1999), Memento may be a stunt, but it's a remarkably philosophical one. The movie is a tour de force of frustration, a perverse tribute to the tyranny of cinema's inexorable one-way flow, and in effect, an ad for a home DVD player. It's also an epistemological thriller that's almost serious in posing the question: How is it that we know ourselves?

Throughout, Leonard insists on the importance of fact over memory and, bravely pragmatic, argues against his own subjectivity: "I have to believe in a world outside my mind. I have to believe that my actions have meaning, even if I don't remember them." The movie's final trick plays on the audience's similar faith. Memento may be a Möbius strip, but it snaps like a slingshot in jolting you back to linear time. Now where was I? It's a punch line for all the movies ever made.



Chantal Akerman's La Captive is another sort of psycho-epistemological inquiry that asks: How can we know another? As noted by Amy Taubin last week, this is the must-see of "Rendez-Vous With French Cinema." An intractable, object-like movie with many pleasing symmetries, Akerman's distributor-less gloss on the fifth novel of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past begins with a quotidian conquest of time. Wealthy young Simon studies a home movie of his lover, Ariane, as she frolics with several young women on the beach. He repeatedly runs the footage through the projector, staring at the image and painfully enunciating, "I . . . really . . . like . . . you."
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