Continuing last week’s exploration of Christopher Nolan’s neo-noir Following (1998), it is only appropriate to venture into a discussion of his more widely known noir throwback, Memento (2000). As in Following, Memento builds upon the sinister, paranoid tone of noir by employing a non-chronological timeline. The film goes one step further, however, by incorporating two alternating timelines: a black and white timeline told in chronological order and a color timeline told in reverse. This structure certainly makes Memento a unique and fascinatingly confusing neo-noir, yet the most interesting aspect of Nolan’s screenplay is its portrayal of the femme fatale, Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss). Arguably the most complex character in Memento, Natalie is at once the quintessentially coercive femme fatale and the character most sympathetic to anti-hero Leonard’s condition and vendetta.
Memento introduces an intriguing twist to the traditional film noir detective story by featuring a protagonist with anterograde amnesia trying to find the truth and solve a murder. Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) witnessed his wife’s murder during a home invasion but suffered a head injury while attempting to stop her attackers. As a result, he cannot form new memories. Now his main purpose in life is to hunt down his wife’s killer – a man he believes is called John G. – and kill him.
To make his investigation possible, he establishes a routine of placing notes and tattooing information on his body, talking to people face-to-face rather than over the phone, and taking Polaroid pictures of locations and people. With the help of a policeman he calls Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) and the girlfriend of a drug dealer, Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), Leonard pieces together clues to the true identity of John G. However, Leonard cannot be sure that what these informants are telling him is indeed truth or manipulative lies.
Like Following, Memento exhibits many elements of classic film noir. Nolan makes use of voice over narration, includes an amoral anti-hero and a corrupt cop, and incorporates a deceptive femme fatale who blatantly admits that she is going to use him. Yet it is this latter element that stands out after multiple viewings of the film. Compared to the other Polaroids that Leonard carries, the picture of Natalie is indistinct.
Taken at a distance, it shows her face mostly in shadow, which blatantly signifies her moral ambiguity and contrasts her with Leonard’s wife, who always appears in bright light. Natalie is first introduced in the film via this Polaroid with the note, “She has also lost someone,” just as Leonard has lost his wife. Indeed, Natalie has just lost her boyfriend, Jimmy. The non-linear timeline reveals later in the film that it was, in fact, Leonard who killed Jimmy, believing him to be John G. Leonard, of course, does not remember doing this, so in his mind Natalie’s willingness to help him hunt down John G. only stems from pity for his loss. What makes Natalie an intriguing character, however, is her continued involvement with Leonard despite his obvious connection to Jimmy’s disappearance.
The structure of Memento is such that the story is told in reverse, from one revelation to another. The impetuses of Leonard’s actions are thus revealed only after he has carried them out. This structure inherently implies that the story is building toward the truth. The implications for Natalie’s character are such that she is “revealed” to be a femme fatale, as her actions are progressively manipulative. She uses Leonard’s condition to her advantage by lying about Dodd, a man to whom Jimmy owed money, beating her up. In reality, she provokes Leonard into hitting her and leaves just long enough for Leonard to forget his actions.
To protect Natalie from further abuse, Leonard forces Dodd to leave town. Natalie also sleeps with Leonard, knowing that he will not remember, and the film implies that this is her momentary attempt to replace her dead boyfriend. These lies paint Natalie as a woman only interested in herself and her own well-being.
However, watching Memento in chronological order allows us to see that, more than any other character, Natalie’s motivations change the most from the beginning of the story to the end. For the sake of clarity, it is best to detail the events of Memento from the point of view of Natalie. Her boyfriend goes out on a drug deal but will come by the bar where she works afterward.
Instead of Jimmy returning, his Jaguar pulls up to the bar, driven by another man (Leonard) wearing Jimmy’s clothes. Natalie is visibly confused, and this stranger is completely oblivious. He claims to have a condition affecting his memory. She believes him when she spits into his beer and he still drinks from it. Fearful of the consequences of Jimmy not returning from the drug deal with the money he owes Dodd, she convinces Leonard to help her get rid of him. To repay Leonard, she gives him information on the owner of the car with the license plate number tattooed on his thigh.
If Natalie were the hardened femme fatale that the theatrical release of the film makes out, why would she feel the need to repay Leonard? She knows that Leonard will never remember having dealt with Dodd. It is possible that she acts out of pure kindness or truly pities him and sympathizes with his condition? Rather, she may act on the principle of repaying all her debts, a kindness for a kindness. One could also theorize that she seeks to punish Teddy, who she may or may not know, for his involvement in Jimmy’s death, which she may or may not know about.
This theory relies on far too many uncertainties and ambiguities within the film. What is important is Natalie’s ultimate role in the story versus that of the traditional femme fatale. In classic film noir, the end of the narrative resolves the fate of the femme fatale, punishing her for her actions. If using Leonard to kill Teddy were part of her revenge, then she was successful. Interestingly, once Natalie gives Leonard the information about John G., she is no longer part of the action and is never mentioned again. In the context of the film, Natalie ultimately serves to raise questions about Leonard’s reliability and comprehension of the reasons for his actions.
After a revisiting of Following’s non-chronological structure, Memento solidifies Christopher Nolan as one of the most inventive and thought-provoking writer/directors. No part of the film raises as many questions as the femme fatale, Natalie, who is at once cruel and self-serving and sympathetic to Leonard’s condition. A femme fatale who goes unpunished, Natalie is an anomaly that casts doubt on the events and people around her. As Nolan improves upon his directorial debut, he creates a story of moral and narrative ambiguity with Memento that requires strenuous interpretation and provides few answers.