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?
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.”
As Simon (Stanislas Merhar) casts his shadow on the screen, eclipsing the phantom object of his desire, so Akerman casts him in a version of Vertigo. He pursues Ariane’s car as it glides through a posh, empty Paris, stalks her in an art gallery, ravishes her in her sleep. Ariane (Sylvie Testud) can be provocatively plain—even homely—but she is fetishized by the unwavering force of Simon’s obsession. Like Proust’s Marcel and Albertine, the two live together in his family’s apartment, but it is what Ariane does when she is apart from him that most fascinates the tormented Simon. (As Proust’s narrator explains, “It was in myself that Albertine’s possible actions were performed. Of each of the people whom we know we possess a double. . . . “)
In adapting Proust, Akerman eschews the temporal pyrotechnics of Raul Ruiz’s Time Regained. Visual as La Captive is in its rigorously formal compositions, the filmmaker is straightforwardly concerned with language. She filters her Proust through the old nouveau roman of Duras or Robbe-Grillet to fixate on recurring phrases: “au contraire,” “if you like,” “you think so?” Similarly, Akerman takes situations from Proust and elaborately defamiliarizes them. The novel’s brief description of Marcel and Albertine’s adjoining bathrooms occasions a long scene in which the unseen Ariane sings as Simon sits in the tub, instructing her on the precise details of her toilette. (Outrageously, much of the conversation is a deadpan discussion of Ariane’s intimate physiognomy, vaginal secretions, and body odor. “If it weren’t for my allergy and all the pollen you bring in, I almost wish you would never wash,” smitten Simon says wistfully.)
Bedtime is another droll, even more complicated ritual. “Do you want me to come?” Ariane asks, meaning to visit him in his boudoir. “No, not yet,” Simon replies so that he can scurry back to his room and then call Ariane on the phone to invite her in. The rules dictate that they play draughts as a prelude to Simon’s real desire—absolute knowledge of her past and future whereabouts. Then she sleeps, or pretends to, allowing for the only time—literally as well as figuratively—that Simon can have her, even as she eludes him. (His practice of rubbing himself against her unconscious form until he climaxes is also taken from Proust.)
The seething vacuum known as Simon is animated only by his jealousy. As blank and well turned out as a mannequin, the impassive but twitching Merhar gives an extreme Bressonian performance. He watches, he listens, he checks up on Ariane: following strangers in the street, bursting into some soiree and dragging her out. Whatever he does, Ariane is neither angry nor surprised but rather pliant and unreadable. Always obliging, she suggests a machine on perpetual standby. Refusing to acknowledge Simon’s surveillance, she blandly deflects his interrogation. When he demands to know what she’s thinking, she replies, “If I had any thoughts, I’d tell you—but I don’t.”
Like the hero of Memento, Simon is a freelance investigator. Suspecting that Ariane is having an affair with an opera diva (if not the woman he has assigned to watch her), Simon interviews a lesbian couple to see if they can offer any insight. “It’s different,” they tell him. Tormented by Ariane’s absence, he picks up a hooker in the Bois de Boulogne. She may resemble Ariane, but she can’t play her. Her feigned sleep is too feigned. This material is brilliantly suited to the filmmaker’s objective technique. Simon’s passion isn’t so much mad love as it is impossible love.
Few things are more pathological than Simon badgering Ariane to tell him her lies so that he can rewrite the past in terms of “real memories.” The breakup—as dogged and excruciating as everything else—takes its dialogue from Proust but feels like Vertigo once more. Akerman has fashioned a great negative love story, a long stare into the abyss of the night.