Directed by Christopher Nolan
Written by Nolan, based on a short story by Jonathan Nolan
With Guy Pearce, Joe Pantoliano, Carrie-Anne Moss, Stephen Tobolowsky and Harriet Harris
Distributed by Newmarket Films
On a first viewing, MEMENTO looked too smart for its own good. It felt as if French theorist Jean Baudrillard had tried writing a novel in the vein of Jim Thompson, awkwardly grafting together a philosophical treatise, reflection on spectatorship and crime drama. Both MEMENTO and Nolan's 1999 debut FOLLOWING draw simultaneously from the wells of film noir and European art cinema. Two years ago, FOLLOWING seemed like the epitome of empty navel-gazing, but in retrospect, it looks like a rough draft for the ambitious synthesis of MEMENTO. Between the two films, he made a major leap as a craftsman: while MEMENTO doesn't have much visual style (which was the only strength of FOLLOWING), its writing, acting and editing are impeccable. Even so, its subtext threatens to overwhelm the text. It's often more enthralling to think about than to watch, but knowing the characters' secrets makes it easier to perceive their underlying pathos.
Leonard (Pearce) is a former insurance claims investigator, now trying to track down the man who raped and killed his wife. He was also a victim of this assault, left with brain damage that triggered severe short-term memory loss. He can remember everything until the attack, but he loses track of time every 5 minutes or so. (This is a real, although quite rare, condition.) MEMENTO follows two main temporal strands: in color, one steadily progresses backwards (a la Martin Amis' novel TIME'S ARROW and Jane Campion's film TWO FRIENDS), while the other, in black and white, goes forward as Leonard talks on the phone from a hotel room, describing his investigation and relating the sad tale of Sammy Jankis (Tobolowsky), a man who approached him at his job suffering from the same condition. Leonard thinks he's learned from Sammy's mistakes. In order to combat memory loss, he takes pictures of the people he meets and places he visits, leaves notes all over the place (even taped to his legs) and tattoos clues about his wife's killer onto his body. The film begins with him looking at a photo of the body of Teddy (Pantoliano), the man whom he killed in revenge for his wife's death. In the days leading up to his murder, he had rather complicated relationships with both Teddy and Natalie (Moss), an equally mysterious bartender.
Critic J. Hoberman has described MEMENTO as a "meta-noir," rather than "neo-noir," a fitting term for a film that initially places us in exactly the same position as its lead character, coming far closer than Mike Figgis' TIME CODE to being genuinely interactive. Whether intentionally or not, MEMENTO reeks of the influence of watching films on TV, interrupted by commercials, and on video, where they can be interrupted and restarted at will. For its first third, the black & white and color scenes even follow each other with the rhythm of a TV show and its commercial breaks. Most of the color sequences begin with Leonard trying to get his bearings. In one, he finds himself with a bottle of booze in his hand, trying to figure out if he's drunk or not. In another, he's in the midst of a chase, but he doesn't know whether he's its object or the pursuer. His quest progresses hand in hand with the audience's attempts to make sense out of a convoluted text. Eventually, we know far more about Leonard than he knows about himself, but the final third's speedy pacing and dense plotting attempt to position us again in his drift and uncertainty. Without overtly criticizing the media, MEMENTO echoes postmodern theory about the loss of reality under the weight of images and words.
Alongside this reflexive dimension, MEMENTO explores the puzzles of memory, self-awareness and subjectivity. Like the protagonist of Jonathan Nossiter's equally inspired and problematic SIGNS & WONDERS, Leonard becomes an amateur semiotician, submerged in backfiring paranoia. (The big difference between the two characters is that Leonard is chasing after potentially real clues.) For all the noir trappings (including Natalie, a slyly sadistic femme fatale), the mystery here has as much to do with the limits of identity and personality as with who killed Leonard's wife. Suspense comes with its structure. Leonard is forced to make snap judgments about people on the basis of a photo or a few scribbled notes. Inadverently changing his assumptions about character every few minutes, he's open to manipulation both by other people and his traumatized, self-serving subconscious.
In both of Nolan's films, genre elements help ground their complex structures, yet his sensibility is closer to Alain Resnais or novelist/filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet than Quentin Tarantino. To use the terminology of critic Manny Farber, MEMENTO is a white elephant that thinks it's a termite: an enormously ambitious art film posing as a B-movie. If given completely free rein, I wonder if Nolan might make something as extreme as Resnais' LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD or Raul Ruiz's 80s work. Genre seems to attract him only insofar as it works as a launching pad, even if he's extending the convoluted structures of noir classics like OUT OF THE PAST and THE BIG SLEEP: fitting for a story about pretexts and excuses. In the hands of Atom Egoyan, MEMENTO's structural roller-coaster rides could have been deeply moving, but Nolan hasn't quite made the leap towards direct emotion that Egoyan made with CALENDAR.
That said, the coldness I perceived in MEMENTO stems mostly from the characters. Clinging to his role as a vigilante, Leonard keeps his emotions under wraps, since he's already vulnerable enough. The other two main characters, Natalie and Teddy, are heartlessly manipulative. After seeing the entire film again with the ending in mind, I'm no longer so certain that the film shares this trait. However, most of its emotional substance emerges out of Leonard's recollections about Sammy, who struggles to convince him that his condition is a real, physical one warranting monetary compensation. (Tobolowsky's big, sad eyes make his vulnerability more palpable than Leonard's.) Additionally, a third temporal strand emerges: flashbacks to the night of the murder. As Leonard recalls more and more of Sammy's story, the film starts weaving its various time levels together, drawing surprising connections.
Unlike the empty gimmickry of THE USUAL SUSPECTS, there's real thought behind Nolan's gameplay. Furthermore, his screenplay's form can't be separated from its content anymore than those of RASHOMON, CITIZEN KANE or EXOTICA could. Told in conventional order, its plot might be thinner and less suspenseful, but it would also be an entirely different beast: the backwards chronology is essential to our identification with Leonard. Through this structure, the mystery becomes "did Leonard made a mistake by killing Teddy?" rather than "who killed his wife?" The final plot twists are carefully foreshadowed, but they still feel a little too calculated. In one shot, Nolan establishes a link between Sammy and Leonard through a subliminal image that's difficult to catch without prior warning.
On a single viewing, Nolan's concept of character seemed like an arbitrary construct, especially since it usually rewards the audience's most cynical assumptions. So I concluded that for him, truth is just another dive along a roller-coaster ride. However, once I fully understood the extent of Leonard's delusions, MEMENTO seemed far less icy and cynical, because the despair behind his quest for revenge came into full view. The ending may raise as many questions as it answers. When Teddy eventually reveals the solutions to the film's many mysteries, why should we automatically believe him, given his mercurial nature and the film's skepticism about the whole concept of objectivity? If "evidence" comes in the form of fantasies or dreams, what does it mean? MEMENTO gazes pessimistically on the possibilities of transcending moment-to-moment existence, commenting bleakly on a world in which history has become meaningless and instantly forgettable and narrative hopelessly subjective. Leonard tries to find a way out of this dilemma - his quest becomes a search for connection to something larger than himself - without much luck. As a metaphor for the postmodern condition, it's snappier and sexier than most theory: a product of this condition, to be sure, but one with plenty of insight into its traps. If Nolan's third film is as big an advance over MEMENTO as it is over FOLLOWING, he may make a genuine masterpiece.