Inception and the Bechdel Test
Christopher Nolan’s Inception has garnered a lot of discussion, mainly about ‘is it real or is it a dream’ by Brad Brevet. The film made me think about other categories, and I’ll go with the most coherent. Spoilers ahead. (p.s. And fine, just in case don’t wanna read everything, just scroll down until you see Joe Levitt’s picture.)
So does Inception pass the Bechdel test, a test that Nolan’s earlier works like “The Dark Knight” or ‘The Prestige” have failed?
Inception has a reputation of becoming inscrutable, or most critics believe this. What most hyped, inscrutable films can legitimately be criticized about is its depiction of gender, since women in films are underrepresented after the era of Julia Roberts. Nolan could do a lot better in writing roles for women, since they’re mostly at the back seat, but I’m grateful enough for what he’s given us. From “Memento,” Natalie (Carrie Ann Moss) avenges her husband’s death by playing cruel tricks on Leonard (Guy Pearce). In “The Prestige” are Sarah (Rebecca Hall) and Olivia Winscombe (Scarlett Johannson), well-written polar opposites of tragedy and survival (p.s. Actually, let me retract that. If Sarah was gonna kill herself, at least show her relationship with her child and nephew before she does so. Or at least show said relationships more blatantly. Great performances though. I’ll defend Scarlett’s performance but not with my life). His two Rachel Dawes have either given us tough love or sunshine.
But before we put check marks on the Bechdel test, let’s now discuss the characters in question.
There’s Mal (Marion Cotillard), Dom Cobb’s (Leonardo di Caprio) wife who commits suicide, believing that doing so is just another kick up from the dream world back up to reality. And as Mr. Pattern Ramin Setoodeh has pointed out, this is suicidal wife number 3 for Leo.
(p.s. As Cobb says, Mal as a femme fatale is his projection, man’s projection. Cobb incepts an idea within Mal’s head that her world isn’t real, an idea that she carries through the dream levels then up to the real world. If we take the plain interpretation of the film, the negative ideas the female might have and the consequences of said ideas is because of man’s doing. Mal That either makes men monsters or women passive or both, take from that what you will.
Here’s Bilge Ebiri‘s piece that reminded me of the ideas within the paragraph.)
Another theory about Mal’s presence in Cobb’s dreams – she functions as Cobb’s antibodies, separating Cobb’s subconscious from the subconscious of his marks. She prevents him from stealing Saito’s (Ken Watanabe) ideas. She stabs Ariadne (Ellen Page) for breaking the rules. She shoots Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy) so Cobb won’t do an inception on him like the latter did hers. In essence, she’s protecting Cobb from himself. If this is correct, Ariadne’s plea to Cobb to forget Ariadne might have been the wrong move.
With the IVs involved with sharing dreams, it might just be biologically possible that Mal with her own free will actually exists within Cobb’s head. As Cobb tells his father(in-law?) Miles (Michael Caine), Mal is powerful enough to interfere with Cobb’s work and ability to structure other people’s dreams.
And we go to Ariadne, Miles’ student in architecture. I’ll go out of my way to say that Ellen Page’s performance is more geared towards reaction instead of original action, as written for her role. Nonetheless, Nolan beautifully misdirects us with Ariadne, since I viewed her inquisitiveness with suspicion. Red from Brad’s discussion, among others believe that she’s Miles’s spy. Cobb opens up to her, she’s genuinely concerned about his mental well-being, there’s a bit of sexual tension between them that thankfully didn’t get more blatant. She uses the information to hustle herself into Cobb’s team and as far as we know, hasn’t told any other character within or outside the crew.
In Devin Faraci‘s ‘Inception as metaphor of filmmaking’ post, he posits Mal as the muse and Ariadne as the screenwriter. As I said earlier, Ariadne adapts this predilection of telling Cobb what to do, in a sense, directing him. Ariadne and Cobb both feed off each other – he exposes, she regurgitates, he practices what she preaches.
Mal is Cobb’s conscience since she stops him for what he shouldn’t do or Ariadne is his conscience for telling him what to do, or if you believe Virgil in Brad Brevet’s site, Mal and Ariadne are the same person. Under this interpretation, the female’s function is to help the male, no matter how much Cobb tries to make it look like the other way around. Nathaniel Rogers uses the phrase ‘window dressing,’ and I’m seeing that in other reviews too.
Now that that’s over. Check one – Mal and Ariadne have names, overtly symbolic ones and no family names but names nonetheless. Check two – They meet three times. The last time is in the fourth dream level, where they don’t even talk to each other. The second time they meet is in Cobb and Mal’s dream basement/anniversary suite and talk. Their conversation, check three, is where it gets complex, especially since there’s no script/DVD of this movie that’s readily available to me. I don’t recall either of them saying Cobb’s name nor a masculine pronoun. If we take the plain interpretation of the film, it’s obvious that they’re talking about him, and even struggling to have him on their respective side. I don’t wanna sound like an apologist but they’re talking about themselves too, a battle between Mal, the dream world and Ariadne, a detached, outsider symbol of reality.
Then there’s the aspect that they always meet in someone’s dream, whether Cobb’s or Fischer’s.
Lastly, Mal stabbing Ariadne is the first time they meet. If that’s not interaction, I don’t know what is.
If I was Doris Day, I would have totally gotten out of the car and slash his tires. Come to think of it, I wanna see Doris Day slash somebody’s tires right now.
I can’t post a full review because I dozed off 15 minutes before the movie ended.
Female Performances List
Inspired by Nick and Antagony via Nathaniel . Se nervous. It took me like a month of listing and can and can’t to do this. How do I even judge a great performance? Physicality? Double or triple threats? Filling the shoes of a memorable literary character? And I combine leading and supporting performances because I’m cool like that. Anyway, here goes –
Vivien Leigh. “Gone with the Wind,” as Scarlett O’Hara. Directed by David O. Selznick & George Cukor, 1939. Oscar winner.
I’m pretty sure I”m gonna be clobbered if I didn’t include her in the list. I tried not to, but I can’t help it. Watching the film means finding another great line that Leigh delivers, considering that she doesn’t have the best lines in the film (the honour would go to Melanie Wilkes). Of course, there’s watching Leigh in four hours going through different stages of Scarlett’s life, in different eras, and both actress and character fit well. She grows into an adult yet her eyes hint of childlike mischief. She’s a character, on paper, that we should love to hate, and yet we still love her.
Hattie McDaniel. “Gone with the Wind,” as Mamie. Directed by David O. Selznick, 1939. Oscar winner.
Writing this, I realized that Mamie’s often brings bad news. Most of the time, she’s the one to tell other characters whether a member in the family has died or is suffering. She’s also there to tell Scarlett if she’s making a mistake. She’s family whether Scarlett thinks otherwise., arguably Scarlett’s surrogate mother, feeding her and clothing her. In “Gone with the Wind, McDaniel puts some subtlety into crucial scenes not permitted to any actress of her race in any other movie at the time. McDaniel took on Mamie character with tragedy and comedy and ambiguity.
Bette Davis. “The Little Foxes,” as Regina Giddens. Directed by William Wyler, 1941. Oscar nominee.
Despite of the performance’s reputation, Davis doesn’t make her character that much of a monster. There’s honesty in Regina’s wish to give her only child Alexandra a better life she couldn’t have in her youth. Yet she’s an anti-Scarlett, or a more ruthless version of the Southern woman. She has the ability to attack after being vulnerable and cheated, has to do certain unspeakable things for her ambition and survival, crushes her family like enemies and in minutes she treat them like friends. All of that done with great finesse.
Moira Shearer. ‘The Red Shoes,” as Victoria Page. Directed by Michael Powell, 1948.
I apologize for the forthcoming use of adjectives and nouns, but who else can show youth and exuberance and pathos. She has this childlike quality, and her ambition for a dance career has thrust her into this adult world where people, sepcifically her boss (Anton Walbrook) and husband, would be pulling and tugging for her. I make it sound like a coming of age story, but Shearer’s performance shows the difference sides youth and the decay of that youth. She goes from rosy to fragile. That and being the quintessential pre-mod British girl holding our attention for at least fifteen minutes in that dance sequence.
Isuzu Yamada. “Throne of Blood,” as Lady Asaji Washizu. Directed by Akira Kurosawa, 1957.
This is Noh and Kabuki at its best. It’s also one of the most interesting interpretations of Lady Macbeth, as well as any royal consort who has to act through her man instead of being free to do so in her own right. The audience sees her sitting down, like in meditation, symbolic of someone so ingrained her own rhetoric and dragging down her devoted husband with her. She is calm as a person who helped her husband kill a man. Yet in public she is a gracious host and tries to behave as if she’s advising her husband and not suffocating him. She shows her as guiltless because those with guilt actually live through the end – she won’t. She spends the final act being tortured on earth. More conventional interpretations of the character shows her as hollowed out, yet Asaji is fully fleshed yet possessed. She’s a monster and not a queen.
Helen Mirren. “Age of Consent,” as Cora Ryan. Directed by Michael Powell, 1969.
Helen Mirren’s trademark is to show off her body, but she uses it in this movie to its fullest potential. When she’s skipping and posing on the beach or in the dirtiest places, trying to hide money from her tyrannic grandmother, she’s that kind of actress that you can tell her what to do or say and she’s game. Her Shakespearean training helps convey this class and strength, surprising for this feral child in the middle of nowhere, yet still make us believe that she’s innocent. No wonder James Mason’s character Bradley was attracted to her and wanted her as a muse. Like and unlike a Galatea-like character she professes her love for her man and she’s so certain of it that Bradley nor the audience can doubt it. Her accent work’s good too. Mirren’s later performances will be that on an ice queen, and we’ll probably never get something as invigorating as this performance from her again.
Faye Dunaway. “Network,” as Diana Christensen. Directed by Sidney Lumet, 1976. Oscar winner.
She knows how to walk into a room. To talk Max Schumacher’s (Billy Holden) ear off and let him just stand there and take it. Being a seductress yet frigid is a hard thing to pull off, and Dunaway does it. Her performance, especially the ending, makes its audience wonder whether she’s a victim or survivor. Max condemns her, that she’s probably gonna jump off from her corner office in a year or two. Yet she placidly and without hesitation plans for an assassination without Max’s words clouding her brain. Also, here and in any other movie, Dunaway is a master of modern American elocution. She doesn’t veer off in a fake British accent like most of her predecessors not does she talk like an accordion like most American actresses. She commands the other person so quickly yet doesn’t get them and the audience lost.
Helena Bonham Carter. “A Room with a View, ” as Lucy Honeychurch. Directed by James Ivory, 1985.
Bonham Carter’s work in this movie can arguably be that on an ingenue’s, but you know the Chinese proverb of an apprentice’s limitless possibilities. As Lucy, she goes on vacation in Italy to learn about art and culture and watch Italians fight, but her stature while absorbing this information that makes her less passive than any other character in that film. She speaks a certain way depending on her situation. She could be ghostly and trapped, childlike in her complaints, or assert to others that her conventional life makes her happy. There’s also that moment when she answers a crucial question and breaks down and becomes free, and is so matter of fact about that answer. Bonham Carter’s recent reputation as Tim Burton’s wife and muse also makes this early performance a discovery of how soft and subtle she could be.
Cate Blanchett. “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” as Meredith Logue. Directed by Anthony Minghella, 1999.
She’s a star even in her many supporting roles like this one. Watch Blanchett’s performance create a back story in a few seconds by a look, by simply flipping her hair and being swept by her surroundings. Meredith is one of the Americans in Venice, yet refreshingly not as jaded as her peers. She doesn’t just use her appearance to shape her role. That insufferable inflection as she calls Tom Ripley ‘Dickie’ is one of the most memorable parts of the film. Fact: Gwyneth Paltrow arguable stole Blanchett’s Oscar, and in return this movie gets Blanchett to steal Paltrow’s boyfriend.
Viola Davis. “Doubt,” as Mrs. Miller. Directed by John Patrick Shanley, 2008.
This wonderfully paced supporting work reveals so much about the shocking words coming from Mrs. Miller. Another way of talking about this scene stealing performance is that of a pressure cooker, a women dogged by Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) until she explodes and tells the truth. She uses the words ‘caught’ and ‘nature’ not like innuendos but a natural part of an oppressive vocabulary. She makes herself understood. Remember that in the film version, their conversation happens in public and Davis doesn’t hush up nor careless go into histrionics. She doesn’t apologize for her presence and makes herself an equal by sharply telling Aloysius that she has to go back to her life, and to defending and loving her son without making the latter nor the audience think that she didn’t ask for him, as many fictional mothers like her do.
But Melanie Wilkes is a ‘Badass’ too
Sure, Scarlet O ‘Hara (Vivien Leigh), the (anti)heroine of “Gone With The Wind,” is the one getting the ‘bitch’ label and Mamie (Hattie McDaniel) has her share of berating Scarlett and trying to tell her what to do, but Melanie Hamilton Wilkes (Olivia de Haviland) had the best zingers. I would love to have known this character and the kind of bitchy stuff she would have said in confidence.
Olivia De Haviland is a star on her own right. It’s somehow baffling that she’d play second fiddle to Vivien Leigh and sometimes, Bette Davis. She portrays Melanie with such placidity that some in the audience might not notice the frankness in rebellion in her words. Like “Phil Meade, you hush your mouth. Do you think it will help your mother to have you off getting shot too? I never heard of anything so silly.”
One of her character traits is her persistence in protecting and defending Scarlet. Scarlet did save her life after all, something that the other characters around her has forgotten. When Scarlet shoots a Yankee, she drags her husband’s sword, if she’d be called to help. She tells Scarlet that she’s glad the latter killed him. Glad? Anyway, to hide this murder, she assures the others at Tara – “Don’t be scared, chickens. Your big sister was trying to clean a revolver and it went of and nearly scared her to death!”
I think Melanie’s held more deadly weapons than any other character in the movie, male or female. Again, she tries to defend Scarlet, who might be blamed for causing the males’ drunken behaviour and for her second husband’s death. Mellie finds her husband, Ashley (Leslie Howard) under arrest for drunkenness. I can’t believe that I missed her telling off the Yankee captain that ‘If you arrest all the men who get intoxicated in Atlanta, you must have a good many Yankees in jail, Captain.’ With rapid fire impatience from her this time. Her character’s a great observer, being a woman and a Southern wife of a former plantation owner in occupied Georgia. She knows how to behave in any circumstance.
People know Mellie for her kindness especially in her last days. Her last command to Scarlet, to ‘take care of Ashley,’ if we can indulge on some overreading, inadvertently sets off a series of events that somehow made sure that we’d never see Scarlet and Ashley together, nor Scarlet with her third husband Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). Mellie and Scarlet might be best friends, but she keeps her husband, perhaps after her death.