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Christopher Nolan and Complex Narratives

Christopher Nolan and Complex Narratives

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 nine films have grossed an astronomical $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 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.



Narrative and narration are epitomic concepts of film. They can be identified within the same space of a film’s landscape, both being adhered to throughout every film regardless of genre and style, one cannot exist without the other. 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.


Complex Narratives

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.


The Magic Rule

Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge”. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t. The second act is called “The Turn”. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige”. Nolan has taken this rule and applied it to his films creating what could be called the ‘Nolan Magic Narrative’.


The Pledge

In Memento, Nolan utilises black and white visuals to show the irreversible linear story and colour to show the reversed non-linear story. Within the first four minutes of the film, the audience is subjected to the tension of the different temporal orders, the order and contingency, determinism and chaos. Firstly we are presented with the initial ‘Pledge’; Teddy’s lifeless body sprawled on the floor before reversing to the point in which Leonard was about to fire the gun. We then skip to a point in time before these grisly events, when Leonard meets Teddy, who appears to be a friend. In effect presenting us, the audience with the ordered and determined idea that Leonard will indefinitely kill Teddy, as it has already been witnessed. We have been told exactly what will happen, but have no idea how or why these events will occur.

This predetermined outcome within the ‘Pledge’ is also used in The Prestige showing the death of Angier, and Borden’s subsequent incarceration for this murder, which results in the predetermined idea that Borden is guilty. However as Cutter’s narration suggests (the quoted speech above) everything you see is part of the trick and Borden’s opening line challenges the audience, ‘are you watching closely?’ suggesting that there is more to be discovered. Both Cutters narration and Borden’s line are also part of the trick, asking the audience to decide whether or not what they present is truth or intentional misdirection. This in itself forces the audience to begin looking for an explanation, whilst Nolan hides the answer in plain sight during both the ‘Pledge’ and the ‘Turn’, just not in the place the audience realises they should have been looking until the ‘Prestige’.



The Turn

Now past Nolan’s initial ‘Pledge’ to the audience, we reach the ‘Turn’. This gives the audience everything they need in the narrative to draw their conclusion and crucially Nolan takes ‘the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary’. In the case of Memento, we are presented with a simple story of revenge; the hero hunting down the villain who raped and killed his wife. Nolan takes this story and gives the audience something they have never seen before, an extraordinary mode of narration and temporal order. This is embodied through Leonards illness, he himself does not remember what has happened in the previous ten minutes and so the audience is subjected to this same disjointed manner of storytelling. However Nolan has clearly laid out that Leonard will brutally murder Teddy so as the film develops both backwards and forwards, the audience has more knowledge than the characters. Yet as Cutter suggests, they aren’t really looking, at least not where they should be, and so the big twist to come in the ‘Prestige’ becomes a thrilling revelation and shock.

This is true in the case of The Prestige, where he first develops his employment in multiple phases that act as stories within stories and later used in similar fashion in Inception and Dunkirk. The Prestige runs with four phases and four different time zones. This allows Nolan to wedge stories within stories. At one point we have Alfred, jailed for murder in the present, reading Roberts journal which contains Roberts’s experience of reading Alfred’s journal; ‘The Prestige treats its time zones not as if they run parallel to the present action, but as if they are embedded stories.’ (David Bordwell) The ‘Embedding’ proposal suggests a way Christopher Nolan innovates classical narration, taking the ordinary and making it extraordinary. Allan Cameron suggests that these could also be termed ‘modular narrative films’ that ‘foreground the relationship between the temporality of the story and the order of its telling’.

See Also
Nicolas Winding Refn


The Prestige

And so we reach the Prestige, Christopher Nolan’s great reveal. This requires little explanation as these parts of the narrative are the ones that stick with us once the screen fades to black and makes us want to go back and watch the film from the start and figure out what we first missed and find the secrets to his magic trick. In Memento, it’s the revelation that Leonard is really the Sammy Jankis from his story, and his reasoning for murdering Teddy (which is very complex in itself and this is just a brief explanation) was not out of vengeance for his wife but his own guilt. In the Prestige it’s that Borden’s secret was that two brothers lived the life of one man, enabling them to perform the transporting man trick as well as ‘escape death’, one dying for the other to live his life with his daughter. In Inception it’s the spinning Totem, need I say more!

In all, Nolan’s narratives are extremely complex and you could very easily write an entire book about his application of them within his films. This is one possible way of investigating them, as Magic Tricks, the idea that we are initially given a piece of information, then treated to something extraordinary before being grounded and wowed with a final enigmatic climax that we aren’t expecting. What is certain though is that Christopher Nolan is a cinematic magician, a master of his trade and we are very fortunate to live in a time as film fans when he is making true magnificent film masterpieces.

*Following (1997) not included.

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