Memento, and the Tragedy of the Comforting Lie

The following is a narrative analysis I made for my schoolwork which I have decided to upload onto my Blog with minimal alteration.

Image result for memento title“Do I lie to myself to be happy?” Is it better to live with a comforting lie than to face an unsettling truth. The answer in most of Christopher Nolan’s work is yes, when that truth justifies the existence of such a lie. This and revenge for the death of a loved one are two particularly prominent themes in his work, and both are particularly relevant to the story of Memento, his second feature film released in 2000, based on a short story written by his brother called Memento Mori. Nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay and Best Editing, this low budget psychological neo-noir thriller follows main character Leonard Shelby on his quest for vengeance for the murder of his wife.

A former insurance investigator, Leonard suffers from Anterograde Amnesia or short term memory loss in which he is unable to make new memories after suffering head trauma from trying to save his wife from being raped and murdered by two home invaders, leaving that as the last thing he remembers. Upon waking from the initial trauma, he deduces that one of the attacker’s names was John G. Determined to get revenge, this proves difficult for him however, as he loses his memory every 15 minutes. Because of this, he relies on written notes, polaroid pictures, and tattoos to help him keep track of his progress. He interacts with two other characters, Teddy, a former policeman who initially seems to be a friend helping him in his quest, and Natalie, a barmaid who is seeking her own revenge for the disappearance of her boyfriend. As the film progresses, we learn more about the ulterior motives of these people, since Leonard can never be truly sure what is real.

What sets the film apart from other works in its genre is the use of the non-linear narrative. The film takes place from Leonard’s point of view, and thus recreates that by splitting itself into two separate plotlines distinguished from each other through the use of colour, challenging the equilibrium, as Todorov would see it, of the film’s genre conventions. The main plotline, filmed in colour, begins with Leonard seemingly deducing while inside a warehouse that Teddy is his wife’s killer and proceeds to kill him as Teddy tries to explain to him that he doesn’t know the reality of what is going on, a subtle signal to the audience how to watch the film. This is chronologically the last scene in the film, as the sequences in colour are placed in reverse order to tell us how this incident came to be.

Each sequence is roughly fifteen minutes long at most, helping them to accurately portray how Leonard’s condition affects his perception, each sequence ending where the previous one began to keep it comprehensible to the audience. The subplot is filmed in black and white, taking place almost entirely in a single room and shown in linear order in between the sequences of the main plotline. These portray Leonard talking on the phone with an unseen individual, explaining his condition by comparing it with that of another person who had it, Sammy Jankis, an amnesiac he investigated during his career as an insurance investigator. What the story has to do with the main plotline becomes clear towards the end of the film, when the two sequences intersect with one another as Leonard leaves the room and the scene transitions into colour.

Image result for memento tattoo

This structure might be difficult for the audience to follow at first, but that is the point, to display the sequence of events through Lenny’s point of view, in which he is continually confused about his surroundings. He serves as an unreliable narrator in this regard, because of his memory condition he and the audience are required to pay attention to small details on screen through the use of close-up shots of the tools he uses to keep track of his actions, whether they be the opening shot of a photograph of a blooded room taken by Lenny, or the tattoos across his body which form an entire narrative by themselves, containing messages such as “Remember Sammy Jankis” and “never answer the phone”, the latter of which becomes the subject of suspense when he looks at it while talking on the phone and realises that he may be making a great mistake. Nolan often uses close-up shots to emphasise a story’s progression, bringing unity to events in the story which prior to that point seemed out of place.

This shot serves as a representation of the film in how Lenny is clueless at the mercy of those around him.

As a noir film, we see multiple tropes used throughout the film reminiscent of the genre, the black and white scenes being most faithful to the atmosphere of such a film from the 1940s. The main character’s status as a former investigator can place him into a semi-detective role which the anti-hero main character of such films would follow, the opening shot conveys this through the fact that such a role would put him in the position to hold such a graphic 1photograph. However, upon initial viewing the audience might interpret such a sight as one of a criminal. And that wouldn’t entirely be wrong considering his motive of revenge causes him to act outside the law, or that as we learn he has killed multiple people before. This presents a recurring theme throughout the narrative of characters not quite being what they initially appear. Many of them may seem to fit into Propp’s character archetypes reformatted for the noir genre, Natalie who initially seems to fit the bill of the femme fatale, but as the film progresses we see that she is manipulating Lenny herself. Teddy appears to be an ex-policeman who had worked on the case of Lenny’s wife’s rape and murder who agreed to help Lenny track down the culprit, though this doesn’t entirely add up when we discover what happened. The characters each seem to show a shade of Strauss’s binary opposites in terms of their personalities because nothing is truly known for certain from Lenny’s perspective. What he knows about them is only what they tell him, which could easily be lies.

This unknowing further attains to the narrative through the fact that in the end, not all details of the story are known to the audience, leaving many aspects still open to interpretation. When we learn that Teddy has been manipulating Lenny to kill people under the guise that they were the culprit, considering all the victims are drug dealers the motivation for this could be a form of vigilante justice or possibly to eliminate the competition for his own drug trade. We do not know how much Natalie could figure out regarding the fact that her boyfriend was one of his victims, or if she truly intended to lead him into a direction that would cause him to kill Teddy or if that was merely chance.

Barrel roll shots are employed to signify the loss of perspective of the main character.

That brings one’s mind to the flashbacks to the assault. Scenes which only exist briefly and outside the film’s established timeline, being shown in colour despite being before the subplot. They are presented as flashes, quickly edited to make them feel blurred, almost dreamlike, bringing to mind another Nolan film, Inception. This more mainstream entry into the cannon created a great worldwide debate on the subject of whether or not the whole film was a dream, the main character in that film choosing ultimately to settle for what he has right now. Memento is similar in this regard, as we learn that he is living a lie, the assault itself never happened, at least not in the way that Lenny remembers it. The story of Sammy Jankis, who killed his wife through her testing the reality of his amnesia by getting him to repeatedly give her a dose for her diabetes until it causes her to overdose, is significant because we learn that Lenny is in fact Sammy. That his wife actually died through this, and he subconsciously fabricated a story that would ease himself of the guilt is something which the fact that as he remembers it, he told the wife of Jankis that he believed the condition was fake to influence her decision represents that a smaller part of him still knows.

His own status of victimhood becomes something he can evidently no longer bear when he discovers how Teddy has been manipulating his condition, as he soon decides to set off the chain of events that would lead him to kill Teddy, although it will not help him or his condition, it will allow from to be free from the manipulations and pursue his happiness with the belief that he has succeeded in his revenge. Though the tragedy of the situation is that the full story is never truly given to us. We still don’t entirely know what people’s motivations for their actions were, and Lenny still doesn’t have quite a full grasp on his memories. The new equilibrium is in how he has found peace with his position through his escape.

The Tattoos are clearly already on his body at a point when they shouldn’t be, because the memory wasn’t real.

The film in the end questions people’s perceptions of morality based on their understanding of truth through the actions of its main character, leaving the audience in a similar place to him through its narrative structure.



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