‘Inception': Sweet Little Lies

[SPOILER ALERT. You should see Inception before reading this.]

If you’re having trouble bending your mind around Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending Inception, Pablo Picasso’s observation may help: “Art is a lie that tells the truth.”

Just like his protagonist Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), Nolan has discovered a way to insinuate a prefabricated “truth” deep in the mind of an unsuspecting person. It’s a technique called “inception.” And now he’s testing his dastardly method on us.

The idea Nolan wants to plant in our minds is that a lie can change reality for the better. It’s a notion that is played out for us at least twice in the film.

First, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) experiences crippling shame as he believes his father has always been disappointed in him. Second, Cobb experiences crippling guilt as he believes he is responsible for the suicide of his wife, Mal. These are the tyrannous, seemingly immovable twin towers of the human personality: guilt and shame. And in the film, both are made to topple by beautifully constructed lies. Fischer’s shame is expiated by the (artificially implanted) dream of a deathbed reconciliation with his father. And Cobb’s guilt is atoned for by . . . well, we’ll come to that in a second.

Much has been made of the brilliant final shot of the film. Are we meant to deduce from it that Cobb has indeed been reunited with his children, or is he still dreaming? But that misses the larger question that Nolan wants to plant in our minds: Does it actually matter whether or not everything you’ve just seen is a dream? If it was, Fischer and Cobb still experienced genuine catharsis. And if it wasn’t, exactly the same thing happens. Whether or not it was a lie that told the truth, it’s still truth. And that truth still has the power to heal us.

Of course, as moviegoers, we already know that Nolan is right, at least to some extent. Movies are carefully constructed counterfeits which regularly bring us genuine release and revelation. We go to watch actors (like Eames) populating simulated worlds that are imagined by screenwriters (like Ariadne), implemented by technicians (like Yusuf), facilitated and financed by producers (like Arthur and Saito), and orchestrated by directors (like Cobb). Does it matter that we know what we’re seeing is an elaborate fake? Does it make the journey we take as an audience any less real, or the emotion we experience any less cathartic? The lines spoken by Cobb and Mal to each other are also addressed to us: “You’re waiting for a train; a train that will take you far away. You know where you hope this train will take you, but you can’t be sure. But it doesn’t matter—because we’ll be together.”

However, an attentive audience member might want to return the favor and plant an idea in Nolan’s mind. Is it really unimportant whether or not “the dream is real”? Can even the exceptional artistry of a film like Inception ever go deep enough—is it actually real enough—to deal with real guilt and real shame? After all, if Fischer had returned to reality to find his father insisting that he really was disappointed in him, would Fischer’s fake dream of reconciliation have been sufficient to fix his real sense of disgrace?

And what of the way Cobb ultimately deals with the guilt over his wife’s suicide? During his final dream confrontation with her, Cobb says, “I miss you more than I can bear, but we had our time together. I have to let you go.”

In the film (and during the end credits), Edith Piaf’s “Je Ne Regrette Rien” is a musical cue that is meant to alert the participants that they (and we) are being brought back to reality. If your French is better than mine, you’ll hear Piaf sing, “Neither the good that I’ve done nor the bad / All this is much the same to me . . . / No, I regret nothing. / It is paid, swept away, forgotten.” By the end of the film, that is Cobb’s song too. Bereft of any authentic mechanism outside himself to deal with his guilt at Mal’s suicide, and with only an unreal “projection” of her to talk to, he is left to try and forgive his own sin himself—by going deep into his own psyche and simply writing it off.

The snag is that real forgiveness of real guilt demands that a real price be paid. Real wrongdoing demands real redressing; the stain stubbornly persists. “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness,” as the writer of Hebrews puts it. Fake blood, however realistic, simply will not do.

However, Jesus Christ’s death is real enough, and deep enough, to fully deal with the problem of guilt and shame. More than the mere inception of an idea, played out on a shallow screen, it is actual flesh and blood reality, lived out in history. Unlike the attempted resolution of Inception, Jesus’ death refuses to downplay or explain away the gravity of our sin. And only Jesus’ death and resurrection is able to offer the deep forgiveness and reconciliation that the film poignantly reaches for. In Christ, God’s love for his children overcomes all obstacles—all the guilt, all the shame—so that he can be finally reunited with them. In reality.

Can a film as masterfully made as Inception, a beautifully constructed dream, offer real forgiveness to guilt-haunted, shame-scarred souls? Well, in a world without a cross, it’s about the best we’ve got.

  • http://www.zdrw.org Chris Zodrow

    The problem of extrapolating guilt and shame from the events of the two men’s lives is that the guilt and shame are unreal in the first place. A father’s disappointment and a spouse’s suicide create subjective feelings, but they are mistaken notions of guilt and shame in those left behind. These feelings don’t require any blood shed. They are the frayed edges of living in a fallen world. No one left behind is actually guilty in these situations. Maybe THAT is Nolan’s point.

    The catharsis is real, because it is a freedom from that which never existed judicially, just subjectively in a confused soul carrying a burden that does not belong to it. How often is this not the case?


    • Dan

      I think that when you say, “the guilt and shame are unreal in the first place” you are assuming things that aren’t told us in the movie. It is possible that the two men had real guilt and shame, but that we are not told why. This is not to say that people cannot suffer from false feelings of guilt and shame.

  • http://www.thirdoptionmen.org Evan

    I love movies. I love posts about movies. Been following you Mr. Cooper, and I’m glad I got the chance to plant the idea of this post in your head last night.

  • Pablo

    Barry!! Great post brother! You hit it big time blogging here!

    Grace to you Brother!

  • Dan Erickson

    In my opinion, if the top never stops spinning at the end of the film, if everything is still just a dream, then it becomes impossible to really understand the movie or intelligently discuss it’s meaning. Reality and truth provide a foundation (oops! My “foundationalism” is showing)for knowledge. Without them we are in an epistemological vacuum.

    • http://www.barrycooper.com Barry Cooper

      Dan, definitely with you on that. Of course, there is the important detail that Cobb’s “totem” is not actually his own – it belonged to his wife. So, again, even if we’d seen the top wobble and fall, there’s a good case to be made that it wouldn’t actually have proved anything either way.

  • http://www.thinkpoint.wordpress.com Steve Cornell

    What a great and sadly true line:

    “Bereft of any authentic mechanism outside himself to deal with his guilt at Mal’s suicide, and with only an unreal “projection” of her to talk to, he is left to try and forgive his own sin himself—by going deep into his own psyche and simply writing it off.

    The snag is that real forgiveness of real guilt demands that a real price be paid. Real wrongdoing demands real redressing; the stain stubbornly persists.”

    The need for forgiveness is universal; the language of guilt and shame, univocal. The gospel must reach to the ends of the earth!

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  • http://realgrasshopper.wordpress.com Lauri

    This is a very good analysis of the film, though I agree with Chris. We don’t know if the guild and shame really exist. We are not told if it is real or not. And that is fine. There is nothing wrong with that. We don’t need to be certain of it, at least in the film.

    While I agree that the reality of Christ, his sacrifice and resurrection are essential for salvation, I question the questioning of that which Nolan is placing in our mind. What he is dealing with in the film touches on the nature of HOW redemption happens, not that the redeemer redeems. A fundamental difference, and something we are not told that clearly in the Gospels, at least not in a formulaic way. So it may well be that Nolan is actually describing the process of being released from shame and guild inappropriately held (or not as the case may be).

    The stories we tell each other do matter. Simplifying our analysis to the gospel/sin narrative is often reductionist and can actually be profoundly dehumanising. No possibility is left that the beautifully constructed lies are actually the beautifully constructed truth which is redemption, the pieces being shifted around to create real change. After all, as Chris hinted at, even if the guilt is real, though Christ has forgiven, there is a possibility that we need to let go of the guilt because Christ has.

    Now I know that Nolan probably does not look at it this way and that is not what he was doing (in relation to the Christian narrative), but what if that is what art is, if it is the lie that tells the truth, why cannot we accept it as true? The pregnant nothing of the yet un-fallen spinning top. Isn’t that what we do when we suspend disbelief at the reality of the trinity, the incarnation or a host of other ways in which we try and talk about the reality of God?

    • http://www.barrycooper.com Barry Cooper

      Hi Lauri – thanks so much for your comment.

      I’m think I’m going to side with Dan on this. I’m afraid I didn’t see any evidence in the film that the guilt/shame is false guilt/shame. In fact, Cobb’s speech near the end of the film (where he tells Ariadne why he feels guilty for testing “inception” on his wife) gives us every reason to believe that he was responsible – albeit indirectly – for her suicide. He planted the idea in her mind that the dream was reality. When she finally woke, she had spent so long in the dream world that she could no longer distinguish dream from reality. She is miserable, so she jumps off the apartment building in order to “wake herself up”.

      If I were in Cobb’s shoes, I would felt real guilt, because I would have been partly responsible for the action she took.

      Now it’s very possible that the whole film is a dream. But that proves nothing either way about whether or not it’s false guilt we’re dealing with. I think Nolan’s point is more that, regardless of whether it is real or false guilt, there’s nothing you can do about it now, so regret nothing, and allow yourself to move on. That idea – there’s nothing you can do about guilt apart from self-therapy – is what I’m taking issue with.

      The other point I’d want to take up is your comment that “simplifying our analysis to the gospel/sin narrative is often reductionist and can actually be profoundly dehumanising.” For me, as far as movie criticism is concerned, to credit the filmmaker with being fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God – and thus as one who inevitably communicates something about God – is the polar opposite of dehumanizing or reductionistic. Far from being a simplification, my own conviction is that the gospel is the deepest truth about ourselves and our Creator. To apply the gospel to “the stories we tell” is not to belittle them or say that they don’t matter. It is to treat them with the seriousness they deserve.

      • http://realgrasshopper.wordpress.com Lauri

        Thanks for the response Barry. I think that since the narrative problem you pose (guilt and shame) where conflates in your post I confusingly added Cobb to the part of my comment where I was mainly thinking about Fischer. His shame may or may not be justifiably pointing to sin and even then the question as to whether it is appropriate to believe ‘the lie’ in order to ‘live at peace,’ is not clearly answered.

        I think you are quite right to say that (from one perspective) Cobb is guilty, but I think I disagree with your analysis of what is going on in the film or what Nolan is getting at. The totalized interpretation you offer is that Nolan self identifies with the lyrics of the song regretting nothing and urging us to do the same.

        However, there are other options. Why don’t you say that Mal was one of his idols? Perhaps his children where? We should pay more attention to the character Elaine Page plays, whose name is Ariadne, which I am sure you know might means ‘most holy’. Given that she is the ‘architect’ of the dream sequences in which the ‘reality’ of the story is played out, she acts as a character to whom Cobb confesses what he has done. The not small implications of her ‘divinity’ are worth exploring if you are going to take it to that level. Perhaps she is a therapist, certainly she is an in-prefect Christ figure but nevertheless this view problamatises somewhat the straight sin/suppression of sin/self forgiveness of your description, since we are shown a type of confession.

        Furthermore, we do not know what Mal symbolizes. In Cobbs ‘confession’ to Ariadne it is clear that Cobb believed that Mal wanted them to stay in the dream world by making him question the existence of reality, certainly quite unhealthy. The ‘redemptive’ aspect of Ariadne’s presence is that she reminds him of his purpose (why he is there if he has significant problems) and chastises him for endangering the ‘mission’.

        Finally, I think you put too much stock in the statement about the lyrics. While it is true that Nolan wrote in the Edith Piaf song he wanted to take it out when he cast Marion Cotillard for the Mal character (who played Piaf in a previously released film) casting some not insignificant doubt about the significance of the precise lyrics to the film. He was later persuaded by Hans Zimmer (the author of the score) to keep the song in.

        You further assume that the words to the song belong to Cobbs character (and I think you somewhat insinuate they are Nolan’s words). But why do they have to be his words, or the ones Cobb feels comfortable with? Indeed, Nolan says of the film: “I think the film is about really having to accept memories or your past or your subconscious rather than putting it in a box and trying to hide it so that the world of dreams in Inception become a focus and a mirror of the world of the subconscious of the characters…” Cobb we are told is like an onion. So why then must we assume that the Piaf song is the final meaning, THE meaning of Inception if you like, when a) it was not central to the story and b) Nolan himself says that the film is about seeing the reality of the way things are rather than trying to delude ourselves? (I agree that the question of delusion in the film could lead to trying to ‘forgive oneself,’ but it is not as simple as that and actually points to a treatment of the psychology of guilt and how guilt functions for many people: i.e. delusion…)

        It is also interesting to note that the Piaf song is slowed down in significant parts of the sequence, possibly indicating that, even after the ‘Mal has been forgotten’ guilt remains.

        Further to the second part of my post, which I think is a more serious point: I agree with you that you both credit the film maker with being fearfully and humbly made (although this should be a matter of course!), this is not a problem. Here you offer respect where respect is due, and while that means you do ‘humanize’ Nolan, you do not necessary defend the humanity of the aspects of his film which are profoundly creative and good. You also do not offer a defence against the accusation that your analysis of the film is reductionist. While you might give Nolan respect by dignifying him (rather patronizingly put by the way) as made in the image of God, you do reduce his film to your application of the gospel to his film. That is not the gospel, I say again, that is your application, not the Gospel.

        You are absolutely right that the gospel should be applied to the film; unfortunately I am not sure that your analysis of the film does that completely, and here is where the difference between your understanding of the Gospel as it applies the film and the film itself starts to break down. The Gospel should be applied to film, but the complexity of the film should not be reduced to a simple and in this case ‘final’ analysis of it.

        With respect, the film is about the psychology and philosophy of mind and, while it does set out to in some way to deal with the tension that guilt and shame cause in a narrative arc, it is not about that. The film offers more. So to put it bluntly, I think you offer ‘Jesus’ as the answer before you ask what the question is. Hence your review feels like that bumper sticker: ‘Jesus is the answer, now what is the question?’

        • http://www.barrycooper.com Barry Cooper

          Well, I guess I’m not going to convince you, Lauri :) I certainly don’t believe my interpretation to be definitive in any way; it’s just my take, and I’m very happy to have heard yours too. In fact, I’m hoping to see the film for a third time before too long – I’m sure there is so much I’ve missed.

          • http://realgrasshopper.wordpress.com Lauri

            What a gracious response. I do want to say that I found the review you wrote helpful in that it highlighted and reminded me of the solution to our problem. I just felt that the film was about more and that it is unclear whether Nolan is dealing with guilt as we understand it, or whether his understanding of guilt is more complicated and perhaps conflates other psychological and perhaps even judicial elements into the narrative of the mind.

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