Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

"The Twisted Femmes Fatales of Christopher Nolan" by Andrew Kania







Andrew Kania is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Trinity University in San Antonio. His principal research is in the philosophy of music, literature, and film. He is the editor of Memento (2009), in Routledge’s Philosophers on Film series, and co-editor, with Theodore Gracyk, of The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Music (2011). As you can see, his interest in twisted femmes fatales is not merely theoretical. 

**Editor’s (Christy) Note: Andrew has serious Gender Studies & Drag Show bona fides.** 


Looking at the plots of Christopher Nolan’s films, you might worry about his attitude towards women. At the end of his first feature-length film, Following (1998), the only female character (“The [unnamed] Blonde”) is murdered with a hammer by her gangster boyfriend. In Nolan’s first mainstream movie, the revenge thriller Memento (2001), Leonard is on a quest to avenge his wife’s rape and murder, though it may be that Leonard himself has inadvertently killed her with an insulin overdose, the fate of another female character in the film (unless these women are one and the same – it’s complicated). The rivalry of the magicians in The Prestige (2006) begins when one kills the other’s wife by (again, inadvertently) tying a trick knot incorrectly. The wife of the first at least gets to exercise her agency in her own death – she hangs herself to escape a (semi-)loveless marriage. Suicide returns in Inception (2010): The protagonist’s wife, Mal, has killed herself in an attempt to wake herself up from what she takes to be a dream.
However, there is also a recurring strategy in these films of undercutting, reversing, or otherwise twisting viewers’ assumptions about women characters, in ways that make it clear that Nolan is grappling seriously with the representation of women in film. My aim here is not to draw any grand conclusions about the women characters or gender politics of Nolan’s films, but only to start thinking about the representation of women in Nolan’s work by pointing to this recurring strategy. (I should also note two self-imposed constraints: First, I will mostly restrict myself to Nolan’s “more personal” films – those already mentioned above, with respect to which Nolan had more control over the script from the beginning of the film-making process. I thus largely ignore Insomnia (2002) (a remake) and the Batman trilogy. Second, it is no easy task to summarize the plots of these films. I will thus assume your familiarity with them and make certain, sometimes controversial, assumptions about what really happens in them.)
What got me started thinking about these issues was my impression that Memento’s Natalie is one of the most misunderstood characters in Nolan’s oeuvre. Though Natalie is presented as a femme fatale from her first appearance in the film (dark glasses concealing a bruise; enigmatic comments concealing information and emotions), she is also presented sympathetically. As the film goes on, however, viewers begin to see her as an evil character, largely because she clearly takes advantage of Leonard’s memory condition to manipulate him in order to escape the consequences of her lover Jimmy’s drug deal gone bad. What viewers seem to ignore is that the drug deal went bad only because it was a set-up, orchestrated by Leonard’s accomplice Teddy. Moreover, by the time Natalie meets Leonard, she is aware of this fact, and fairly certain that Jimmy is dead. In light of these facts, it seems to me that Natalie should be considered at the very least cool-headed and pragmatic, but more plausibly extremely empathetic and generous in her treatment of Leonard. She gives him a place to stay, and helps him in his quest, even though she could easily refrain from doing so and still get what she wants from him. It is true that she uses him to her advantage, but in the circumstances that hardly seems blameworthy – after all, she knows that the person she’s using has just played a central role in the murder of her lover. (The morality of “using” Leonard is also complicated by the difficulty of assessing his autonomy in light of his memory condition.)
The Blonde in Following is another apparent femme fatale who undergoes a double twist. She is first presented as the victim of her gangster ex-boyfriend’s blackmail. Then the (also unnamed) protagonist discovers that, on the contrary, she has been working with his false friend, Cobb. In a final twist, however, it turns out that Cobb is in league with the gangster and they have been setting up both the Blonde (to be murdered) and the protagonist (to be framed for the murder).
Similarly, Inception’s Mal is presented as a femme fatale from her first appearances (to say nothing of her name), betraying her husband, Cobb (no relation!), twice in the film’s first sequence. Throughout the film, she infiltrates and sabotages the dream worlds in which Cobb work – thereby threatening his chances of returning home to their children – and urges him to join her in death. But it’s very easy to forget that we almost never actually see Mal in the film; after all, she is dead. What we see is rather Cobb’s projection of her; that is, we see a manifestation of his guilt over her death. This fact is foregrounded twice. When Ariadne asks Arthur what Mal was like “in real life,” he says simply: “She was lovely” (an impression in striking contrast to Mal’s on-screen representation). And at the climax of the film, Cobb admits that he “can’t imagine you [Mal] with all your complexity, all your perfection, all your imperfection. Look at you. You’re just a shade … of my real wife. You were the best that I could do, but, I’m sorry, you’re just not good enough.”
In all three of these cases, a woman is represented in a way that allows her to be categorized according to a cinematic type – the femme fatale – but it turns out that such categorization is simplistic and incorrect. More interestingly, it turns out that one major reason the viewer is misled in each case is that one’s access to the fictional world is strongly filtered through the male protagonist’s perspective on the world. In both Following and Memento, a fractured narrative structure serves to constrain our understanding of the fictional world, so that our experience somewhat mirrors that of the male protagonists. The strategy in Inception is somewhat different, since it is not the narrative structure but the way in which the fictional world gets represented on screen that misleads us about the nature of the central female character. (Basically, we see the contents of people’s minds in various ways.) But in all three cases, we are (or ought to be) forced by these very techniques to reevaluate our initial (and often our subsequent) impressions of these characters.
There are few unambiguously strong women characters who survive Nolan’s films. Ellie Burr in Insomnia and Selina Kyle (Catwoman) in The Dark Knight Rises (2012) are perhaps the best candidates, though it’s worth noting that Nolan inherited both these characters from other sources. There is also Ariadne in Inception, though like many of the secondary characters in that film she is rather one-dimensional, serving primarily as a therapist-figure to Cobb. (I speculate that the casting of the youthful Ellen Page is designed to prevent her becoming a possible love interest of Cobb’s and thus displacing Cobb’s relationship with Mal as the emotional heart of the film.)
There are some other interestingly “twisted” women characters in Nolan’s oeuvre, however. It is easy to assume that Memento’s Leonard had a good relationship with his wife Catherine – he has dedicated his life to avenging her death, after all, despite a crippling psychological deficit. But there are several clues that this was not in fact the case. Though he describes Catherine in glowing terms, in the brief flashbacks that accompany his recollections she is never happy. In the one extended scene that features her, Leonard teases her for re-reading a book; she responds by calling him a “prick.” And, more than once, Leonard asks people not to call him Lenny, saying his wife called him that, and he hated it. This suggests that Leonard’s entire quest is founded on a lie, and that its true purposes are to convince himself that his marriage was a loving relationship and to distract himself from the possibility that he is responsible for its destruction. (Intriguingly, certain flashback shots of Mal strongly recall those of Catherine.)
Finally, the biggest twist in The Dark Knight Risesis arguably the revelation that Batman’s nemesis, Ra’s al Ghul’s child, is not the literally masked yet obviously villainous Bane, but rather the more cunningly concealed villain, Miranda Tate. Once again, the viewer, like the male protagonist, is misled by internalized gender stereotypes, though this time into the assumption that a physically strong and agile yet morally evil character must be male. (I guess Heath Ledger’s turn as a drag nurse in The Dark Knight (2008) wasn’t enough to recalibrate our gendered sense of morality in Gotham.)
To repeat, I don’t draw any grand conclusions here about the gender politics of Nolan’s films. I simply note the tension between conventionally gendered aspects of the films and their subversive counterparts. On the one hand we have typically male genres and styles, such as superhero comic-book films and neo-noir, and the ubiquitous representation of women as victims; on the other hand we have a persistent subversion of female filmic stereotypes, particularly through drawing attention to the way in which they pervert male perspectives. It seems to me that this suggests a promising line of inquiry regarding Nolan’s work that has barely begun to be explored.
Suggested Reading
Furby, Jacqueline and Stuart Joy (eds) The Cinema of Christopher Nolan, New York: Columbia University Press, forthcoming.
Gaut, Berys. “Telling Stories: Narration, Emotion, and Insight in Memento” in Narrative, Emotion, and Insight, ed. Noël Carroll and John Gibson. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011, 23-44.
Kania, Andrew. “What is Memento? Ontology and Interpretation in Mainstream Film” in Memento, ed. Andrew Kania. New York: Routledge, 2009, 167-88.
Kania, Andrew. “Inception’s Singular Lack of Unity among Christopher Nolan’s Puzzle Films” in The Cinema of Christopher Nolan, ed. Jacqueline Furby and Stuart Joy. New York: Columbia University Press, forthcoming.
Knight, Deborah and George McKnight. “Reconfiguring the Past: Memento and Neo-noir” in Memento, ed. Andrew Kania. New York: Routledge, 2009, 147-66.
McGowan, Todd. The Fictional Christopher Nolan. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012.
McKenna, Michael “Moral Monster or Responsible Person? Memento’s Leonard as a Case Study in Defective Agency” in Memento, ed. Andrew Kania. New York: Routledge, 2009, 23-43.

5 thoughts on “"The Twisted Femmes Fatales of Christopher Nolan" by Andrew Kania

  1. I'd buy that for a dollar! The “Suggested Reading” is an especially nice touch — although the three entries in which your name does not appear seem rather superfluous. I'd argue that Nolan's films have become steadily less subversive — and less interesting — as his career has progressed. I must see *Following*, but I'm really not motivated to watch his latest and future efforts.


  2. I concur with your general assessment, though, as I was pleased to discover recently with respect to Wes Anderson, just one decent film would re-pique my interest.


  3. Not qualified to challenge your erudite discussion as I have seen only Memento (twice) and bits of his other movies. However, do think that Nolan targets a predominantly male audience ( as do cross-dressers, delightful as they are). In Nolan's films, character development is largely subservient to plot development and female characters exist primarily to advance the plot. As such, they are eminently forgettable.


  4. Again, I agree in general, though I guess I hoped to salvage at least one more interesting function for some of his female characters.


  5. Am off to see 5 hours of Fritz Lang's Niebelunger next week, interspersed with Jim Jarmusch (a vampire movie for those who don't like vampire movies) and Pawlikowski's Ida. Film Fest only 4 weeks away!


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