Acclamations of genius plus megamillions at the box-office equal a license for self-indulgence. Case at hand: critical favorite Christopher Nolan plus popular favorite The Dark Knight equal Inception. To all those responsible, filmmaker and favorers alike, good luck with it.
A major snow job, it is nominally a science-fiction thriller focussed on some sort of psychic superspy (Leonardo DiCaprio, fully earning the furrow between his brows), an expert in the gentle art of “extraction,” the stealing of conscious ideas from people when their guard is down in dreamland, now assigned the more difficult task of “inception,” the planting of an idea in that same vulnerable state. The idea to be planted, not that it matters, has to do with getting a billionaire’s sole heir to break up the corporate empire, an undertaking that produces far and away the frontrunner for understatement of the year: “This isn’t your typical corporate espionage.”
Even for science fiction, the mumbo-jumbo to explain how all this works is exceptionally skimpy and unscientific; and the headlong propulsion of the plot, a vessel of commotion rather than of cogitation, allows no time for the mumbo-jumbo to sink in. Right out of the gate, a commando team is rounded up for the operation, including a novice oneiric “architect,” cute little jaded Ellen Page, who, at some point in the dreams-within-dreams labyrinth she has designed, delivers the movie’s sole laugh line: “Whose subconscious are we going into, exactly?” How exactly, or roughly, or even vaguely, dreams can be designed for and imposed upon other people is not remotely graspable. Nor is the means by which a whole team — a literal dream team — can co-ordinate and synchronize an occupation of the unconscious. We learn, or think we learn, that the quickest way to get out of a dream is to get yourself killed in it, but then we learn that under certain conditions getting yourself killed in a dream will subject you to an indefinite limbo instead of an immediate reveille. And sometimes, though it’s difficult to know at which times, the people in dreams are not genuinely in jeopardy because they are not “real” but only “projections.” As if there were not enough knots already, a personal one gets added to the tangle. The hero’s dead wife (Marion Cotillard, bringing along “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” from her Oscar performance in La Vie en Rose, the Edith Piaf biopic), whom he’s suspected of murdering, periodically and perilously invades his dreams, uninvited, as a needless complication and a fruitless bid for emotion.
The axiom that would seem to apply, the axiom that would seem to have been mislaid, is that if an artist is going to do something so “original” — as opposed to something as well-worn and easily understood as a time machine or a teleportation device — he must take care to instruct, to lay out the rules and regulations, to show the viewer the ropes. Else it’s wildest whimsy, freest fancy. It might just be possible, I suppose, that if the viewer were to sit through Inception a second or third time, he might come to know what’s “real” and what’s a “projection” and what difference it makes, or know when a dreamer is threatened with limbo and when the path is clear to a bright-eyed awakening. But a bloated, a self-indulgent running time of two and a half hours rather discourages that. The viewer would need a lot more incentive than a faint hope of comprehending the incomprehensible.
On a first go-round, he is apt to find, if he is anything like me, that the dream state decreases any caper-film tension and reduces the goings-on to mere spectacle. Notwithstanding Nolan’s proven penchant for chaotic and incoherent action, the spectacle is often spectacular: the demolition of a Parisian cityscape one detonation at a time, a street folding over on itself like a crêpe, a Twin Towers-like collapse of an entire waterfront, a train rumbling down the middle of a boulevard, a machine-gun chase on skis and resultant avalanche out of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s anti-gravity fighting and floating in a hotel corridor and elevator shaft — anything goes. But you just sit and watch. You don’t worry. You don’t care. And under the influence of the key piece of strategy from The Dark Knight, namely Hans Zimmer’s unrelenting grinding throbbing pounding music, you might crave either an aspirin or an antidepressant.
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The fiftieth-anniversary reissue of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, at the Ken for the next week, will likely be a puzzlement to anyone seeing it for the first time. An outrider, a scout, a frolicking pathfinder, this scrappy little seat-of-the-pants production looks to be very much a film of its time as opposed to timeless. Unlike the recently reissued Metropolis (even without the added footage), it does not bear well the weight of history. To speak today of Godard’s use of jump cuts or hand-held cameras would require an almost intolerable demand on the imagination, something comparable to that depicted in Somewhere in Time, a magical transit into the past. It would make better sense these days to speak of the cheekiness of the over-twenty-minute sequence (in a barely ninety-minute movie) in Jean Seberg’s hotel room while Jean-Paul Belmondo tries fitfully to persuade her to sleep with him. Seberg, by a curious turn of events, can bear much more than her share, perhaps more than the entire film’s share, of the weight of intervening history. Wrung out in Hollywood by the age of twenty-one, this Iowa farm girl got new life from Breathless, and she in turn — in the interim a cult figure, a political martyr, a tragic heroine dead at forty under mysterious circumstances — now gives new life to the film. Who but Marilyn Monroe can arouse such pathos on sight? ■