PUBLISHED 17 MAR 2017
MEMENTO centres around Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), a man who suffers from anterograde amnesia, meaning that he cannot create new memories. He is hell-bent on tracking down the mysterious John G, the man who he believes raped and killed his wife. This is the same traumatic event that brought about his amnesia. The film has an unconventional style of narrative when compared to the the common blockbuster as it starts at the end of the story and goes backward in fragments. Each time a segment ends it starts anew at the beginning of the previous segment. For example, one scene starts with Leonard being chased, it is only after we watch this whole scene and then start the previous one that we realise what events led to the chase. Nolan has described the film as having a “dislocated narrative structure”. In following this unorthodox style, Nolan allows the audience to experience the same disorientation that Leonard Shelby experiences throughout the narrative.
Juxtaposed with the reverse narrative, there is a sequence of black and white scenes which are shown in chronological order. The film is a crime noir, notoriously one of the most difficult to create and coveted film genres, which are also commonly filmed in black and white. In such films, narration and voice-overs are often used to guide the audience like in the mystery-thriller THE THIRD MAN (Carol Reed 1949), which sees pulp novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) investigate the death of an old friend. Here the narration provides the audience with clues regarding the murder. However, in MEMENTO, the same technique is used to achieve the opposite effect. By using the amnesiac’s unreliable narration, the audience are led to question every moment of the “dislocated” narrative. In creating this confusion, Nolan takes the audience on a journey of discovery and places them in the shoes of Leonard Shelby.
famous jazz musician Ella Fitzgerald famously said that “It is not where you came from; it is where you are going that counts”. Nolan applies this directly to the audience’s experience of trying to unravel the narrative. He reveals the ending as the film begins, suggesting that the ending itself is not important but the journey of how we ended up at this point in the story. This can also be applied to Leonard Shelby’s own philosophy. In the final scenes, the audience realises how unreliable Leonard’s story really is. Not only has he already killed the infamous John G, but he also lies to himself, allowing his friend Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) to be set up as the new John G in his mind. He would rather continue to experience a journey forever as he knows he will never remember reaching the end or not.
In one of the final moments, we see Leonard lying in bed with his alive wife with a tattoo of “I’ve done it” scrawled on his chest. This is the final time, but perhaps the most convincing moment that the film asks us to question the timeline of events. We could take it at face value that he previously killed John G and had the tattoo removed or, that Leonard’s recollection of events is so chaotic that this could equally be a fantastical vision. Nolan suggests that the film is a comment on the futility of memory, stating that he realised "how fragile and unreliable that mechanism is”. Similarly he takes the audience on a journey of narrative discovery with no reliable conclusion. MEMENTO leaves the audience with the question of how we perceive our own reality and whether our experiences can ever truly be objective.
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