In the past, I’ve discussed Christopher Nolan’s neo-noir-in-reverse Memento for its narrative and setting, as well as its place in Nolan’s filmography. However, I’ve never really addressed it visually, and that’s about to change—because Memento is this week’s entry in The Film Experience’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot series! Memento is a very attractive film, courtesy of Oscar-winning cinematographer (and Nolan’s partner-in-crime) Wally Pfister; it’s set in a generically urban, sun-drenched part of California, pierced with greenery, but you still get a sense of something sinister lurking down the frontage roads and inside the grungy hotels.
The film’s greatest visual coup is how it alternates between its bright-but-menacing color palette and a crisply nightmarish black and white, intuitively associating each one with different time frames. Yet I still found it hard to pick out a single best image. It’s universally pretty, but few shots really stood out to me. That said, I really love how Nolan and Pfister shoot actors. Stars Guy Pearce and Carrie-Anne Moss are sexy people, and the film exploits that fact for all it’s worth during their brief but torrid affair. (This is an edge Memento has over Nolan’s bigger, more ambitious projects: for all their virtues, you could never claim that The Dark Knight or Inception are especially sexy. Except when Heath Ledger’s in his nurse costume.)
Thus, this is my best shot for Memento:
It’s a rare moment of tenderness and vulnerability. Even though Leonard and Natalie are modeled on the film noir archetypes of the tough private eye and the heartless femme fatale, here they’re just two lost, lonely people. They’re in the midst of exchanging morning-after banter as the film reaches its end/beginning, with Natalie caressing one of his tattoos and saying, “It’s pretty weird,” to which Leonard responds, “It’s useful.” Nothing too special about the dialogue, but it’s the gesture that matters here. She brings her hand down across his chest, then touches it once again, hesitantly.
Then they physically separate, changing their clothes and getting ready for the big day ahead. Leonard may soon forget this moment, along with Natalie’s identity and her fractious relationship to him, but for the audience it lingers. It’s erotic, but not gratuitous. It’s sweet, but definitely not sentimental. It’s fleeting, just like all of Leonard’s experiences. It’s also beautifully lit against a backdrop of rumpled sheets, with the late-morning sunlight playing on Moss’s hand and Pearce’s torso. It’s absolutely my best shot.
I have a few others I’m fond of, especially ones that capture Carrie-Anne Moss’s casual bitchiness. Or better yet, since everyone loves a symmetrically shot death scene:
[Interestingly enough, my second-favorite shot is also the favorite of JA at My New Plaid Pants. It is an awesome shot!]
Nolan and Pfister accomplish something special with the visual interplay between Leonard’s hellish current life and his last few memories, set before and during the murder. It reminds me of the wistful editing patterns in Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour, which is ironic, since Jonathan Rosenbaum once dissed Memento as “gimmicky and unpoetic” compared to Resnais and his experimental successors. Memento certainly has its flaws, but it’s more than just a pastiche-filled puzzle. It has traces of feeling, as well as dark wit, tucked inside its thorny narrative. And it’s an excellent showcase for the serpentine Moss and the sensuous Pearce.