(2000, Christopher Nolan)
“Now, where was I?”
Anterograde amnesia: a condition in which the patient is unable to create new memories, usually as a result of some kind of head trauma. The patient can remember their identity and anything up to the incident that caused the condition, but otherwise cannot remember anything.
Memento is about a man named Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) who has this condition. After a break-in, during which his wife was raped and killed, his attempt to save her resulted in him being knocked out cold. The head trauma resulted in him getting a condition, known as anterograde amnesia, which prevents him from forming new memories, but has conditioned himself to remember things using Polaroid photos and notes. He is on a mission to kill the man who killed his wife.
Leonard’s jumbled memories as a result of his condition are represented through the story being told completely out of order. Alternate scenes are from different points in the timeline. Handily, director Christopher Nolan colour-coded the scenes, with scenes in reverse order in colour and scenes running forward in greyscale. It’s still slightly confusing though, which means that this is a film you really need to pay attention to. Which would be difficult if you had a condition known as anterograde amnesia, a condition that prevents new memories from forming, the very same condition protagonist Leonard Shelby has.
By telling the story out of order, we’re seeing each scene as Leonard himself sees it. Due to his condition, anterograde amnesia, he can only remember things for a certain period of time before experiencing a sort of mental blackout. And it’s these snippets of time we see, and as a result we connect with Leonard, but we never really get a true sense of the world around him. Even at the twist ending, we’re not sure if we can trust all the information we’ve been given. As the events of the movie unfold in their unconventional way, we’re introduced to the mysterious Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) and Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), but we’re never sure of their motivations. What’s more, we’re not even sure of Leonard’s motivations. Is his own information reliable? This confusion and disconnection from everything is what makes the film so effective, forcing the viewer to make up their own judgements as to what the real objective truth is. After all, if we can’t trust our protagonist, who can we trust?
If there is an issue with this film, it lies in Pearce’s acting. I always found his delivery really flat and somewhat unemotional. This could lie in the fact that Leonard has anterograde amnesia, a condition that means he is incapable of forming short-term memories, as a direct stylistic choice by either Pierce or Nolan to show how disconnected he is from the world. He shows little emotion because he’s not entirely sure what’s going on around him. He doesn’t remember enough of the situation to be able to react to new information like anyone else would. However, this gets silly in some scenes, such as when Leonard has a mental blackout in the middle of a chase and tries to figure out what’s happening to him. In this scene, regardless of what he remembers, he would still be terrified because there’s a man pointing a gun in his direction. Instead, his reaction is flat and lifeless, and almost unintentionally hilarious as a result. There are a few more minor examples, but that was certainly the most glaring one.
However, overall, Memento is a very clever film. There’s some clever editing and scripting going on here, and even little clues to the film’s twist which are easily missed until later viewings. It may leave you with a sense of confusion, causing you to walk away from the film wondering if you’ve missed something. But this is the point. It’s trying to emulate Leonard’s condition, trying to make the audience identify with what it must be like to have anterograde amnesia. And really, the story wouldn’t work any other way. The twist is, after all, in the middle of the story. It’s easy to see why this film put Christopher Nolan firmly on the film-maker’s map.
Unless you have anterograde amnesia, then you won’t be able to remember much of the film due to your inability to form short-term memories. I’ve told you all about that condition already, haven’t you? Sorry about that, you see, I have this condition…
Starring Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss & Joe Pantoliano
Written by Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan
Produced by Jennifer Todd & Suzanne Todd
Music score by David Julyan
Cinematography by Wally Pfister
Edited by Dody Dorn
Favourite Scene: Natalie screws with Leonard’s condition. Shows how truly flawed Leonard’s “system” is, and it’s fantastic.
Scene That Bugged Me: “Who am I chasing? Oh no, he’s chasing me” Said like someone who trying to figure out where they put their keys. I don’t care if you have a condition, Leonard! You have a man pointing a gun in your face! Be scared!
Watch it if: You’re able to understand a film backwards
Avoid it if: You have anterograde amnesia, which is a condition that prevents you from forming short-term memories. You’ll be even more horribly confused.
Originally posted on Blogspot Saturday 31 December 2011