You know what? I think I’m gonna use you. I’m telling you now because I’ll enjoy it so much more if I know that you could stop me if you weren’t such a fucking freak!
—Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss)
Ten years ago, in Memento, a man named Leonard (Guy Pearce) was tormented by con artists and creeps. They took advantage of his “condition,” his lack of short-term memory. Distrusting everyone and yet believing almost anyone, Leonard clung to one memory from long ago, his wife’s murder. That he might have misremembered did not occur to him as he pursued vengeance with, well, a vengeance.
A similar plot seed lies inside Chris Nolan’s latest take on a tormented mind. In the case of Inception, the tormenters are less clearly external, more likely inventions—here termed “projections”—by Dom (Leonardo DiCaprio). But again, as in Memento, the hero struggles to recover from loss and dislocation and to rejigger the world so it matches his view. And again, the gigantic maw of trauma that sucks up his energies takes shape as a woman.
As her name indicates, Mal (Marion Cotillard) is bad. It may be that this isn’t entirely her doing, that she’s been created or projected by Dom, the husband who both needs and resents her, who feels her loss as deeply as his own anger and guilt. Still, her badness is made visible during her first appearance in Inception, distracting Dom from his work. That work is stealing ideas, from inside victims’ dreams. (This process, called extraction, entails Dom and his team dreaming alongside the mark, physically nearby, for reasons that are not entirely clear.) At this moment he’s making his way through the subconscious of an energy executive named Saito (Ken Watanabe), which is rather too predictably structured as a Japanese-looking mansion/fortress. Dom’s sharp-eyed show-runner, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), spots Mal first: “What’s she doing here?” he hisses, at which point you not only know she’s trouble, but also that Dom will walk right into that trouble she is.
As the film unpacks its layers—dreams within dreams and corporate schemes within schemes—Dom’s obsession with Mal comes up again and again. He thinks he’s containing her, keeping her locked away in the lower layers of his own subconscious. His efforts are complicated when Mal pops up unexpectedly, as in the Saito caper. But she’s sort of everywhere, as an abstract notion of what’s bad (what can go wrong, what might be evil) and an incarnation of Dom’s loss, of control and authority. Arthur especially seems bothered by her meta-meanings: his favorite iPod cue to wake the idea-thief-dreamers is Piaf’s “Non Je Ne Regrette Rien,” the same Piaf Cotillard played in La Vie en Rose.
Such allusions hint at a larger idea, that Inception is a big fat metaphor for movies, lucrative collective dreams. In these dreams within dreams, plots occur simultaneously and affect one another: a train invades the seemingly straight space of a busy street; Arthur impressively recalculates the very notion of weight in suddenly gravity-less hallways; expert shapeshifter Eames (Tom Hardy) morphs alternately into Talulah Riley and Tom (“I am reality!”) Berenger; and Dom infiltrates a stronghold set amid endless snow and ice, beset by faceless shooters in white gear with white guns.
All this makes for a decent summer action picture, as deft and occasionally clunky as Batman Returns. Most effectively, Inception rethinks space, much as Leonard had to rethink the past. Here the film’s other girl, a newbie dream-space architect named Ariadne (Ellen Page), is key. (Yes, she builds mazes.) On her first day, Dom instructs Aridane on the rules of dream design: don’t work from your own memories, watch out for defensive projections, make the space logical. But Ariadne right away gets creative: “What happens when you start messing with the physics of it all?” And with that, she’s warping the space around them, using mirrors and literally bending streets and folding buildings onto themselves, so there’s no sky, only layers of pavement and windows and traffic crisscrossing. It’s a breathtaking moment, just what you’d think a movie about dreams might conjure.
But as soon as it starts, this space illogic shuts down. Dom looks impressed, then confounded, and then Mal appears on the multiplied sidewalk, literally coming at Ariadne, all catfighty and nightmarish.
If Mal’s not exactly the overbearing mom or miffed wife here, she’s certainly the frantic other woman, raging for her own order, rejecting new ideas. Ariadne insists that Dom get “her” under control, but again it’s unclear whether Mal has any volition of her own, or if she’s Dom’s loss, his projection, or something in between.
Despite the menace of Mal, Aridane goes along with Dom’s fixed-space-and-faux-control system, at which point he invites her onto their new job, where they won’t extract ideas but plant one. This process, called inception, is by all accounts exceptionally difficult and risky. The strenuously multiculti team must go deep inside the subconscious of energy heir Robert (Cillian Murphy) and leave an idea. In other words, the plot turns rather ordinary. Even if the layers of plots take on a 3D-chess sort of structure, they’re still the same basic heist plot, with Dom and his demons at its center.
These demons populate his past and push forward into his present—at least if you think he’s dreaming now, or that his dream shapes Inception. It could just as well be Mal’s dream, I suppose. Or even the dream of one of their two super-precious blond children, whom Dom says more than once Mal abandoned and he must “get home” to look after. Their very perfection makes them suspect, of course, as the kids are as likely a collective dream (a movie) as they are his own, as likely an idea once given to you that you now believe is yours.
“The smallest idea is a resilient virus,” Dom tells Ariadne, “It can grow to define or destroy you.” It might be that Mal is Dom’s idea, his very own projection of guilt and fear and loss. Maybe she’s Aridane’s idea, the risk of “messing with the physics of it all.” She might be the sign of endless dreaming or the collapse of dreams. Or maybe she’s another idea, the movies as stand-in for collective loss.