(Christopher Nolan / USA / 2000)
At the beginning we have two stories. One unfolds forward (at first photographed in black and white), the other backward. Two threads that will meet near the end of the whole. The main problem: not being able to forget the past because there is no present. All you have in the present, all your recent memories, relate to the past. So the past becomes the present you have to live in. A perpetual motion machine from which our protagonist tries to break free by creating a purposeful present state with an aim in the future.
You could call Memento a typical revenge movie, if it weren't for the inverted storyline and a protagonist with memory loss. As can be expected in such a case, the movie also plays a lot with the effects of paranoia, especially in the black and white segments which are at times reminiscent of films with a similarly obsessed character like Darren Aronofsky's Pi (1997). Overall, the narrative device works, because we know comparatively only as much as the protagonist. We can puzzle together more than he from his future, but at the same time we know less about his past. It's a clever idea, and our impression of what we know keeps constantly changing, accounting for another suspenseful thread besides the plot. Nevertheless here's the story as I understood it.
Our main protagonist Leonard (Guy Pearce) has lost his short-time memory through a blow at his head, which happened while he was trying to save his wife from being raped. While his past remains purposefully blurry after this incident (did he accidentally kill his wife afterwards?, who was Sammy Jankis really?), it becomes clear that a cop named Teddy is using him for his own purposes (which are presumably primarily monetary), as a killer for some time already. During the same time period, Leonard, who only wants revenge for the death of his wife, tries to find and kill his wife's rapist. As this has probably already happened before the films' main storyline, the mission Leonard is now really on is how to get rid of his recent past as a hired killer and find redemption. In the end he succeeds to construct a different reality for himself through the help of his illness and another woman whose fate become intertwined with his. So what initially destroyed him also helps him to find new meaning, and a new life.
If memories are a construction of your mind, you can maybe choose what to remember and what not. Or to put it more clearly, you can choose what you want to recall as well as how you want to recall it. Memories are a part of your present life and form it to a huge extent. And as Leonard says: "You need something to believe in to go on living". But what if you are chasing someone who doesn't exist, or merely the wrong person, without being aware of it? What is really at the heart of revenge? Who do you want to kill - the person you are looking for or the person you have become yourself ? Maybe you are already in the process of killing over and over again. And what's the purpose in that? Maybe you want to forget who you really are, who you were and what you did. To finally become somebody else. Memory loss offers positve and negative possibilities. And what is truth anyway? Isn't it also a construction of your mind, isn't truth what you believe it to be?
The short clips from his past with his wife, the part of his life which is important for him and gives relevance to the present, are shot in color. They reminded me of Terrence Malick's magical inserts of memories of past domestic (and romantic) lives, the soldiers are having during World War II in his masterpiece The Thin Red Line (1998) , because in Memento they are presented in a similarly fragmented way - something which might have become popular in independent films after the success of Danny Boyle's Trainspotting (1994) and can be witnessed in such recent debuts as Joachim von Trier's Reprise (2006) - and aim for a comparable emotional impact that is tied to the notion of loss and existential angst. The moments from his past one remembers or clings to in moments of horror, become in retrospect not only more beatiful and significant, but also serve as a (retroactive) foreboding to the events that will follow. Thus, a moment of love becomes also a moment of despair, each moment of innocence getting its significance partly through this circumstance. As a result, melancholia is born. If we can therefore deduct that each moment already contains the seed of its future, the Horror Joseph Conrad discovered in the Heart of Darkness and to which Marlon Brando is so tragically referring to in Apocalypse Now (1979), is inherent to every moment. But as the present naturally also carries the past, a bigger truth gets uncovered. Horror and beauty coexist all of the time. The awareness of this (something I'd call life - or living/being/existing, as you wish) is what these kind of films have in common and what makes them relevant to us. And if we remember that tragedy and beauty is also at the core of Film Noir...
Sometimes movies keep telling the same old stories.