Christopher Nolan is one of the most prestigious names in Hollywood. It’s difficult to find a filmmaker who has such a flawless track record of delivering films that not only perform well critically but also generate an enormous gross at the box office. Since his first entry* with Memento in 2001, his films have grossed more than $4.75 billion worldwide. One of the key signatures to his films is the unique application of narration that constantly challenges and excites audiences into multiple viewings.
Each and every one of his films explore narration in a different way, almost posing themselves as large-scale magic tricks and Christopher Nolan as the great Magician, asking the audience to look at his left hand whilst performing a sleight of hand with his right and revealing the climax at the very end. To paraphrase The Prestige, with his films you have to make sure that you’re looking closely.
In terms of narrative, Hollywood traditionally adheres to a classic three-act structure, to assure the audiences of a well-formed story that will provide them with the resolution that they desire at the climax of the film. Narration is best described through the Russian Formalism terms: the fabula and the syuzhet. Simply put the fabula is the chronological ordering of the events that are seen in the film and the syuzhet is how these events are represented to us.
Christopher Nolan takes these classical narrative structures and remoulds them to fit his purpose; creating complex, or as some people call them, puzzle narratives. These films are complex and don’t necessarily fit within the confines of a classical narrative. They experiment with things such as structure, linearity or temporal order. Thomas Elsaesser define these as a “mind-game film”; a film that never reveals a true conclusion, the audience is left at the end of the film still questioning to how they got there, as only the ending has been presented to them with the events leading up to it being of a subjective, unreliable manner.