THE DI CAPRIO DILEMMA AND THE NOLAN AESTHETIC- a respectful consideration of Christopher Nolan’s ambitious film, INCEPTION
By Tom Beaver
Christopher Nolan makes films that are tricky and structurally vast. His first efforts as a filmmaker (FOLLOWING, 1998, and the widely admired MEMENTO, 2000) certainly garnered duly earned attention from filmgoers and critics. His 2002 film, INSOMNIA (his best film, in my opinion) starring Al Pacino, was a remake of a Swedish film of the same name directed by Erik Skjoldbjaerg. Nolan then tackled the BATMAN franchise and turned it into a phenomenon for 21st Century youth (BATMAN BEGINS, 2005) and secured his place as one of Hollywood’s prominent and most successful filmmakers. He followed with 2008’s THE DARK KNIGHT and became a superstar director. The film was so successful in its opening weekend alone- entire countries could have been fed and clothed with the box office receipts.
His latest film is called INCEPTION and stars Leonardo Di Caprio (more on Leo later), Michael Caine (brief- but brilliant as always), Marion Cotillard (stunning in a relatively thankless role), Ellen Page (one of the ten most authentic things inhabiting celluloid today) and Joseph Gordon Levitt (a capable supporting player).
Rather than go into the complexity of the muddled narrative that has more plot holes than practically any major release you’ll see this year- let’s just say the film is about a troubled boy-man who has the relaxing and peaceful job of burrowing into people’s psyches and dreamscapes in order to thieve and thereby alter ideas and notions that could manifest in the subject’s waking life. In other words- the protagonist is a meta-physical scoundrel. This role would be quite interesting in the right actor’s hands.
Now- it has become apparent (in the last decade) that Leo cannot handle roles of moral and emotional complexity unless he’s being directed by a very specific Italian American genius known for his proficiency with actors and crafting classic protagonists in his often times classic films. Di Caprio is troubling to me (perhaps more than any current performer) as a film and acting admirer. I thought he made some strong and visceral choices in THE AVIATOR (directed by that Italian American by the way) and SHUTTER ISLAND is the best performance I’ve ever seen Di Caprio muster (again- the Italian American filmmaker). In 2004’s THE AVIATOR- Di Caprio gave a precise, physically demanding, emotionally demanding, albeit super-rehearsed performance in a strong and exciting film. SHUTTER ISLAND was last year- and the Italian American (I won’t say his name in this writing because God knows I’m speaking of his brightest filmmaking thunderbolt) directed Leo the way Leo NEEDS to be directed.
Christopher Nolan is very obviously preoccupied with the brilliance (and it is brilliant in fleeting instances) of his own filmmaking aesthetic and he appears to have little patience or time to direct any actor who is not already equipped with sufficient gifts. INCEPTION has many characters. Ellen Page is perfectly cast as a young woman who is ahead of her years in her chosen work and studies (watch her with Di Caprio- she challenges him as an actor- she tries to bring him to her level). Her character is an angel guiding Di Caprio through his character’s dilemmas and desperately trying to keep him from killing all the supporting characters on their mission in the film. Marion Cotillard is Di Caprio’s dead wife. She keeps popping up in his dreamscapes and subconscious because he keeps her popping up out of sheer nostalgia and immaturity.
The problem with the film and it’s complex story- is the CHARACTERS don’t inhabit the film. This is because they circulate around a weak protagonist who does not possess the instincts they do. Ellen Page, Cotillard, Michael Caine- these artists merely require a camera pointed at them to deliver their magic. Leo needs DIRECTION. And it seems to me that Nolan was overtly concerned with the mechanics and allure of his film- so he let the lead character fend for himself- and this is one area where the film falls flat.
Special Effects impress those who are impressed by large toys and loud bangs. They are, by nature, cool and jolting. Cool is cool- I think things are cool sometimes. I like to be jolted. I also like to see human beings working through dilemmas while I’m being jolted in moderation. However- when a film is impressed by and hinges upon its own capacity for “cool” and “jolting”- I tend to recoil from it. The themes of INCEPTION are transparent as well. Di Caprio’s character is navigating a world that is fairly implausible (you and I cannot enter dreams other than our own/and if we do/our knowledge of it is always hearsay). No problem. It’s a movie. That’s the fantasy genre- sci-fi- etc. But the neat trick of a film like this should be that the protagonist aids and abets our understanding of an implausible world. INCEPTION wants us to believe it is concerned with humanity and our inability to differentiate between reality and dreams, but the driving force of the film is buildings that grow and overlap on each other, explosions and car chases and gunfire, loud noises that shake you out of your vegetable state, and nifty unoriginal Hollywood throwaway lines (thankfully- they are minimal).
The film says- YOU LIVE IN AN ARTIFICIAL WORLD INHABITED BY REALITIES THAT YOU CREATE AND OR IMAGINE- AND YOU ARE FACED WITH THE DECISION TO ACCEPT OR REJECT THEM. Okay- good. I agree. BUT- I have seen many films that articulate that in one scene of dialogue. They don’t spend over two hours weaving intricate and awe inspiring sequences to illuminate a very simple point. I am somewhat reluctant to point out (but I must) that homoeroticism is meticulously utilized as a stark undercurrent in most of Nolan’s films. Nolan never gives women roles in his films beyond- dead wife who is an illusion, girlfriend that stands in the way, inconsequential assistant that has little screen time beyond eye candy- etc. The men circle each other like titans reinforcing their own strengths DESPITE the existence of the opposite sex- even Batman can’t enjoy the fairer sex unless it’s an expensive escort! In the end- even the most complex of themes- can and should be illuminated by any artist in small and simple points. The aesthetic lies in the decision- the decision is the talent- the talent makes the point.
This is not to say that I think Nolan is not talented- he is. He can hold our attention. He knows how to make you watch. He’s highly intelligent- that is quite obvious. Christopher Nolan’s INCEPTION is worth seeing for Ellen Page’s sincere portrayal and immeasurable talent, Cotillard’s eloquence, Mr. Michael Caine (a cinematic treasure), but ultimately- one should see the film to examine one’s own inner capacity for what stirs your soul. What awes you? What really makes your jaw drop? What makes you examine your own humanity?
A film subjectively obsessed with its own subjective obsessions- or a film that objectively penetrates and gives voice to YOUR obsessions effortlessly through simple points tied together into a whole? For my money- the complexity can sometimes wither out and detract from the simplicity of human insight. And the human insight is why I love and continue to pay for American movies.