The Dead Wives of Christopher Nolan; or, the resilient idea at the heart of Inception

May 8, 2012 by Simon Kinnear in Opinion with 2 Comments

Inception 2010 Mal Marion Cotillard

I recently rewatched Inception for the first time since seeing it at the cinema, and was amazed all over again by the film’s complexity and verve.  Yet the most interesting thing was my sudden realisation that you could remove the subplot involving Mal (Marion Cotillard) and still have an audacious, original blockbuster. So why have her in the film at all?

Christopher Nolan loves to complicate things – he once told a story backwards, after all – and by including Mal he gets to: a) add thematic heft by showing the dark side of dreaming; b) dot the i’s on the premise by showing how Cobb discovered that inception could work; and c) give his lead character a fully developed emotional arc.

More than that, though, it highlights a running theme in Nolan’s films, an idea that he seemingly can’t let go of, or what Inception calls “the most resilient parasite.” In Nolan’s films, that idea is the death of the hero’s wife or girlfriend.  Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight and Inception all feature the same event, either as backstory or as plot development.

Crucially, the hero is always culpable. In Memento, Leonard Shelby accidentally gave his wife a fatal overdose of insulin. In The Prestige, Alfred Borden and Robert Angier are inextricably linked by the accidental drowing of the latter’s wife. In The Dark Knight, Rachel Dawes is targeted by The Joker for her closeness to both Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent. And, in Inception, we learn that it is Cobb who plants the seed of suicide in Mal’s thoughts.

[In Nolan’s defence, it doesnt have to be a wife or girlfiend. The backstory of Insomnia revolves around the shooting of Will Dormer’s partner.  Batman Begins because of the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents.  But that sense of wrenching grief is near-total in Christopher Nolan films. Only Nolan’s debut, Following, is exempt.]

So it’s about loss, then?  Not quite.  It’s about guilt.  I used to think that Nolan’s heroes were defined by obsession, but that’s more of a Darren Aronofsky thing. In Nolan’s films, it’s more specific; his heroes are all trapped in a purgatory of their own making.

It’s no coincidence that Cobb calls the deepest level of dreaming ‘limbo;’ it’s where Nolan characters tend to take their holidays. Leonard Shelby creates a prison from amnesia, setting himself a quest that can never be fulfilled because he’ll can always restart it. Will Dormer and Bruce Wayne escape into wintry exile (and are you really telling me it’s a coincidence that Ariadne makes snow the subject of Robert Fischer’s own catharsis in Inception?). The Prestige delivers the most extreme case, as Robert Angier creates a closed loop of tornented death and rebirth for his splintered personality.  Strip away the sci-fi or superhero trappings, and Nolan is a properly old-school auteur who keeps making the same film over and over again. 

Spielberg has his absent fathers; Nolan has his dead wives. I’m not saying there’s an autobiographical imperative underlying the repeated motif (given that Nolan’s real-life wife, Emma Thomas, is his producer, it would be awkward on set, to say the least, if the director was actually a lady-killer).  Nonetheless, it’s field day for amateur psychologists, especially since Nolan’s own brother has been convicted of planning a prison escape while being held on suspected murder charges.  That’s the kind of tale you’d half-expect to end up in one of Nolan’s own films.     

Whatever the reasons, it certainly gives us something to think about with only a few months until the release of The Dark Knight Rises.  I’m largely spoiler-free, so it’s not enough worth me hazarding a guess as to the plot… but should Bane, or even Selina Kyle, be defined by guilt over the death of a loved one, I’m not going to be surprised.

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  1. Simon KinnearJul 19, 2012 at 4:34 pmReplyAuthor

    Nice to see that The Dark Knight Rises is true to form in introducing a new dead wife / mother as a plot device for certain characters’ motivations. Surely Nolan is just taking the piss now?

  2. DrewJan 20, 2013 at 9:03 amReply

    You know, the main character’s love interest does die at the end of the Following too.

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