Grief, Trauma and Memory in Memento

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A bloody polaroid dominates the screen, and begins to fade slowly, developing in reserve. Blood climbs back up the walls, and you are forced to watch the scene subvert itself, the violence and gore dissipating before your very eyes. The imagery is gone, but the sense that what is done cannot be undone remains.

Christopher Nolan is undisputedly one of the biggest directors working today. His oeuvre from the past two decades transcends the psychological thriller genre and beyond, and most (if not all) of his work requires the construction of an alternative reality, matters far from our understanding of everyday existence. Throughout his body of work we are encouraged to identify with his male protagonists, and pushed into a state of confusion as they become bewildered by the events unfolding around them.

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One of the most celebrated films from the 1990s, Memento, flips the chronological approach to narrative order on its head, putting the audience in the same sense of bewilderment as Leonard (Guy Pearce), a man on the hunt for revenge. Leonard suffers from anterograde amnesia (short-term memory loss) as a result of an injury, and attempts to piece together the tragic events leading up to his wife Andrea’s death, with the help of Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) and “Teddy” (Joe Pantoliano), and his various Polaroid pictures and tattoos. It is a piece that is referenced often in modern media, and aside from its ‘90s feel and aesthetics, it is a timeless piece indeed.

One part of Memento’s approach to storytelling that is particularly painful to watch is how we see Leonard relive his realisation that his wife is gone. Each time you bring up past trauma you are effectively re-traumatising yourself, and the structure format utilised within the piece reflects Leonard’s journey strongly, as he appears to get closer to the truth yet remains far from it. This formalistic approach puts us into Leonard’s shoes, though his unshakeable drive for revenge begins to feel less justified as the timelines begin to blur.

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The nonlinear structure and stylistic choices to have the three different timelines are some of the primary elements that make Memento stand out from the rest of Nolan’s oeuvre, and aids the audience in sympathising with Leonard, often presented as a standoffish kind of guy. With each shift from deep sepia, to colour, to black and white imagery, frustration grows, as does Leonard’s resentful response to his repeated grieving process, as due to his inability to make new memories since losing his wife, he is unable to fully tackle the matter of healing from his past. Instead, he allows the wrongdoings to his life partner to completely overshadow everything else in his life and demands revenge, even if there is a high possibility that he will not even remember it, or gain the satisfaction that appears to fuel him.

Is revenge a feat worth pursuing if you are unable to remember it? Is Leonard choosing to prolong his suffering, and cause himself further damage with his relentless approach to taking justice into his own hands? Films such as Memento successfully affirm the trope of the unreliable narrator in a way that is refreshing and multifaceted, a viewing experience that keeps yourself guessing and second guessing yourself. If you cannot trust your own brain, then it is possible to trust anything or anyone around you? Leonard’s hunt for revenge transforms into a quest of meaning that which he has constructed to give himself a sense of control, when so much in his life, previously grounded by certainty, has become one of continuous confusion and blinded hatred. It is what affirms Memento as one of Nolan’s best and most ambitious films, and one that is still undoubtedly worth a watch.

Arabella Kennedy-Compston

Arabella Kennedy-Compston

She/her. Filmmaker and Film Journalist based in London.

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