Dismembrance of Things Past 

An ingenious new thriller scrambles its hero’s memory—and ours

An ingenious new thriller scrambles its hero’s memory—and ours

Memento

dir.: Christopher Nolan

R, 120 min.

Opening Friday at Green Hills

Movies proceed in real time, which means that the audience cannot readily refer back to earlier events in the story, the way they can with printed text. The best that a dedicated moviegoer can do is to take notes while the film unspools, and to hope that those hastily scrawled thoughts will make sense when reviewed in the stark light of the theater parking lot. Often they don’t, either because the handwriting is hopelessly cramped, or because a notation divorced from its original context is hopelessly obscure. (“Why did I write ‘hat is clown’?”) And then there’s the added question of whether the act of jotting things down during a movie prevents the viewer from getting the whole experience.

The main character of Memento is a habitual note-taker, and some critics have suggested that this gimmicky noir is in part a film about the linear nature of movie-watching (and about the detective story conventions that the film defies). As we move forward in a filmed story, our memories of what went before naturally fade some, as we work to keep up with the plot. That’s a problem Memento compounds by telling its story backwards.

Reversing the order of events in a book, movie, or play is nothing new. Harold Pinter did it with Betrayal, showing the devastation of an affair and then moving backwards to show the roots of the cuckold in a seemingly idyllic relationship. Alan Moore’s comic story “The Reversible Man” took a middle-class man from death to birth and showed how much unexpected delight and sudden fear there is in a life lived in either direction. Even the TV show Seinfeld stepped through one of its complex comedic situations in the opposite direction, for the jokes alone.

What makes Memento different is that the “backwards” hook is meant to create a specific sort of disorientation in the viewer. The film’s protagonist, an insurance investigator named Leonard Shelby (played by Guy Pearce), is trying to figure out who raped and murdered his wife, but his progress is hampered by a psychological condition: Since the incident, Leonard has lost his short-term memory, and he can only stay focused for 10 minutes at a time before he forgets everything that happened 10 minutes before. To stay on the trail of the killer, Leonard takes copious notes and Polaroid photos, and even tattoos key clues on his body; but the actual meaning of those random words often escapes Leonard soon after he’s jotted them down.

Memento opens with Leonard standing over a dead body, and then writer-director Christopher Nolan (working from a short story by his brother Jonathan) shows us the scene leading up to the corpse. Then Nolan shows us the scene that led to that scene, and so on. Interspersed with this regressive storytelling, the writer-director drops in a recurring scene of Leonard on the telephone, telling someone about his condition and how he came to be solving this crime.

The telephone scene keeps the audience from getting totally lost, while other scenes are designed to lose us. Because we have almost no information pertaining to what happened before the scene we’re watching, we’re put in the same position as the protagonist, forced to take each conversation and confrontation at face value, with no backstory to help us put the moment in context. Sometimes Nolan uses the gimmick for a cheap joke, as when Leonard finds himself running and can’t remember if he’s chasing someone or being chased. At other times, the filmmaker tugs at our emotions, as when a character we’ve come to trust confesses a secret that Leonard is bound to forget almost as soon as he hears it.

The ingenious design of Memento all but assures that the film will be a thrill to watch once, but when the picture is completed, it’s possible some patrons will feel that the puzzle has been solved and can easily be put back on the shelf. That’s a flaw inherent to most mysteries, really. But Nolan doesn’t quite fit all the pieces together in Memento, and I have yet to meet two people who saw every detail in the film exactly the same way. Everybody is bound to miss something the first time around, and there are several revelations toward the end of the film (which is toward the beginning of the actual story) that change the meaning of what has gone before (or, more accurately, what comes afterward).

Nolan’s visual style is merely functional rather than integral, and the picture would’ve had more emotional resonance had the filmmaker allowed for a few more quiet moments of Leonard dealing with the everyday realities of his condition. (How does he manage a checkbook? How does he eat in a restaurant?) But Pearce’s performance as Leonard is suitably mercurial, and he’s ably assisted by Joe Pantoliano and Carrie-Ann Moss as two questionable pals who may be helping Leonard or may be exploiting him for their own nefarious purposes.

Even in the abstract, it’s fascinating to ponder how a shaky memory calls every certainty of one’s life into question. Nolan pokes at the theme even from the corners of the story, through throwaway lines like, “The world doesn’t just disappear when you close your eyes, does it?” and through subtle moments like the flashback in which Leonard asks his wife why she reads the same book repeatedly when she already knows how it’s going to come out.

The answer is that she likes the familiarity of the story and the comfort in knowing what’s going to happen next. The brilliance of Memento is that we know what’s going to happen next, and yet we feel more uncomfortable than ever, because we don’t know what happened before. Even when we find out the backstory, it’s hard trust what we know, since the knowledge gets stuck in the unreliable contours of our own human minds.

Widowmaker

Veteran French filmmaker Patrice Leconte’s The Widow of Saint-Pierre may seem appealingly familiar to American art-house audiences, coming a year after Chocolat and Dancer in the Dark charmed and provoked the movie-going sophisticate. Like Chocolat, The Widow of Saint-Pierre stars Juliette Binoche as an iconoclast who touches the lives of citizens in a small French village. Like Dancer in the Dark, The Widow of Saint-Pierre revolves around an execution that may be unjust. But while Leconte’s film lacks sumptuous images of confections, striking art direction, dizzying camerawork, or dazzling musical numbers, the writer-director replaces those surface values with a more thoughtful, well-considered approach to his material.

The picture opens with a murder. Emir Kusturica plays Neel Auguste, a drunken sailor who, at the prompting of an equally blotto chum, stabs a man to find out if under his baggy clothes he’s really muscular or flabby. Auguste shows little remorse for the crime, because he can barely remember why he did it. He’s sentenced to death by guillotine, but the tiny island of Saint-Pierre has no guillotine of its own, so it has to wait for the republican government—in constant turmoil in 1849—to locate a spare and have it shipped.

In the meantime, the town’s military captain (played by Daniel Auteuil) and his wife Pauline (Binoche)—known as Madame La, since the older fishermen don’t feel comfortable calling her Madame La Capitaine in a town full of sea captains—take charge of feeding and watching over the prisoner. Madame La decides to put the condemned man to good use, so in exchange for better food and reading lessons, he helps out around the village with repairs and gardening. Time passes, the guillotine is nowhere in sight, and Auguste becomes a useful and well-liked member of the community.

The drama of The Widow of Saint-Pierre is that Auguste is still living under a death sentence, which has the town elders debating among themselves as to whether they can finagle a pardon for the increasingly popular jailbird, or whether they should simply order the captain and Madame La to stop letting Auguste out of his cell. All of these debates are intensified after a guillotine is located and begins a long journey to the island. The question for the politicians is whether Auguste’s life can be spared without causing an affront to an already shaky government in Paris. The question for the townspeople (and the audience) is whether Auguste’s life should be spared, given the randomness of his crime and his subsequent rehabilitation.

Leconte raises these questions of law and justice through a series of ironic situations: Auguste’s drinking buddy is killed when a cart he’s riding in overturns, after anonymous townspeople pelt the cart-horses with stones; to assure that the law is upheld, the town elders plot what amounts to a murder; and Auguste himself reacts to all the hubbub with quiet obedience, either because it’s his nature to be docile, or because impending doom has made him so. (This raises the larger spiritual question of whether the mortal state of all humanity should cause us to modify our behavior accordingly.)

There’s an element of the morality play about The Widow of Saint-Pierre; it’s more of a film to mull over than a film to drink in like an intoxicant. That’s unusual for Leconte, whose films tend to revel in eye-catching technique. Here, his most noteworthy directorial touch is his use of the slow zoom, which first establishes his characters in a muddy 19th-century landscape and then frames their faces tightly, penned in against gray backdrops. That explication of moral ambiguity is simple but profound.

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