by Allan Fish
(USA 2000 113m) DVD1/2
Discount Inn, room 304
p Suzanne Todd, Jennifer Todd d/w Christopher Nolan story Jonathan Nolan ph Wally Pfister ed Dody Dorn m David Julyan art Patti Podesta cos Cindy Evans
Guy Pearce (Leonard Shelly), Carrie Anne Moss (Natalie), Joe Pantoliano (John Edward Gemmell), Mark Boone Jnr (Burt), Stephen Tobolowsky (Sammy Jankis), Callum Keith Rennie (Dodd), Harriet Sansom Harris (Mrs Jankis), Jorja Fox (Leonard’s wife), Larry Holden (Jimmy Grantz), Russ Fega (waiter),
“Let’s start at the very beginning” Julie Andrews once famously sung. Well, I never did like that film very much. Chris Nolan, the mastermind behind this psychological tour-de-force, seems to believe the opposite might be best, starting his cult classic at the end, and literally letting his narrative run in reverse, beginning with the ending. Sounds confusing? In truth it often is, but on reacquaintance the film makes more sense, not just in terms of its plot, but in terms of the reason for this narrative approach.
Leonard Shelly is a hot shot insurance claims investigator from San Francisco whose wife has been raped and murdered. He spends his days living in and out of the same room at a shabby motel trying to trace the man he believes is responsible. The problem he has is that he has suffered from short term memory loss ever since the murder of his wife, and thus has to write things down or have them tattooed onto his body to remember them. Two people seem most willing to help; a mysterious girl from a bar and an over-talkative fellow who seems to follow him wherever he goes and who Leonard is generally mistrusting of.
The idea behind the narrative structure thus becomes clear, as Nolan gives the closest approximation of the protagonist’s condition for the audience. We can’t remember what’s gone before, because what we’re actually trying to remember is what comes afterwards. It’s a dizzying experience for sure, but quite an intellectually exhilarating one, and one which dares to shatter audience’s preconceptions of cinema itself. As the film begins to come together in the final, or should that be first, act, one begins to feel the futility of it all, as Leonard descends into a sort of recurring, circular nightmare scenario, but one into which he eventually happily descends. “We all need memories to remind ourselves who we are”, he says. He just needs a reason to go on living, however futile it may seem. “I use habit and routine to make my life possible”, he says, and he’s willing to go to any lengths to maintain the illusion.
If this might seem a very cold premise for a central character, Nolan is not out for sympathy, and nor does Pearce play him for any. The ending/beginning may seem awful, but any other ending would have been a cop out in retrospect; only this ending could apply to this character. Pearce is nothing short of sensational as Leonard, equally at home with the subtle changes in temperament that come with a sudden memory loss and the endless monologues into a telephone. Moss as a real black widow and Pantoliano in a not quite trademark role offer sterling support, but it’s rather Ned Ryerson – sorry, Stephen Tobolowsky – who really touches the heart in one of the great vignettes in modern cinema as the unfortunate (depending on whether Leonard’s tale is to be believed or not) Sammy Jankis. The scene where he unwittingly kills his wife with repeated insulin injections is one of the most heart-rending in recent years. Tributes are equally due to cinematographer Pfister, whose contrast between the sunny colour of the outside world and the sinister monochrome of the motel interiors in stunning, and editor Dorn, whose work is often worthy of the adjective ‘miraculous’. The real miracle here, though, is Nolan’s, who manages to create that true rarity in modern cinema, a bona fide 110% original film in a time when originality is looked down upon as not financially viable. His film knows that the best intentions in the world can result in the most insane situations, and that Leonard was right when declaring that “just because there are things I don’t remember doesn’t make my actions meaningless.” Just try and erase it from your memory.