Before its release to the general public film critics heaped endless praise upon Christopher Nolan’s latest mind-bender Inception. Except for a few dissenting voices the verdict was clear: after The Dark Knight Nolan had created another cinematographic masterpiece. The critics’ greatest worry was that Inception’s plot would prove too complex for the general cinema audience. Roger Friedman, for example, writes on showbiz411.com: “During the first 20 minute sequence, Inception requires more attention than any other film of the last 20 years.“ Pete Travers from Rolling Stone is concerned that “trusting the intelligence of the audience can cost Nolan at the box office. We’re so used to being treated like idiots. How to cope with a grand-scale epic, shot in six countries at a reported cost of $160 million, that turns your head around six ways from Sunday? Dive in and …drive yourself crazy, that’s how.” Even critics, while sensing the film’s brilliance, thus find themselves at a loss how to capture that brilliance: John Anderson in the Wall Street Journal writes that the movie is “impervious to criticism, simply because no one short of a NASA systems analyst will be able to articulate the plot.”
Anderson is certainly on the right track. However, Inception is not rocket science but mimetic science. I’d like to argue that mimetic theory offers all the necessary tools to come to terms with the plot and with the various narratorial perspectives. In the following I’d like to suggest that there are three basic possibilities of how to watch the film. Each possibility is a valid viewing of the film, supported by pieces of evidence in the film. Each reflects the ontological presuppositions (i.e. what one thinks about being, individuality and reality) of the person watching the film. Each also contains at its core a mimetic component. But only the third possibility – because it incorporates the first two and is the most mimetic of all three – can account for all the evidence and the intricacies of the plot.
First Possibility: The Blockbuster Viewing
Christopher Nolan is too much of a Hollywood professional and business man to think that he will ever receive 160 million dollars again for a film from Warner Brothers, if he’d just produce a mind-boggling conundrum of a film that only a handful of his most faithful fans will bother to decipher. The first possibility of how to watch Inception is thus as an action-packed blockbuster. In order to do so, one has to unquestioningly accept Dom Cobb’s (played by Leonardo Di Caprio) view of things.
Cobb is an “extractor” who specialises in stealing people’s secrets by invading their minds with the help of a science-fictional device. While the victims of extraction are asleep, the dream thieves join the sleepers and construct a shared dream space. The victims then fill the dream space with their unconscious. The victims’ deepest secrets are deposited in a pre-constructed secure space in the dreamscape, for example a bank-vault, a safe or a prison. The thieves then try to break into that space to steal the victim’s secrets. The victims of extraction do not realize that they are asleep and when they wake up don’t remember that their unconscious has been invaded.
In this first possible viewing, Inception is a heist movie in the vein of Ocean’s Eleven, with the only difference being that the theft is taking place in the virtual world of a dream. In this case the plot is actually relatively straightforward and simple. Cobb accepts one last job of dream invasion from Saito (Ken Watanabe), an influential Japanes business man, who in return promises Cobb to pull some strings so Cobb can re-enter the US and re-join his children. Cobb is wanted for the murder of his wife and a life-sentence awaits him on his return to the States.
But what Saito requests is not extraction but “inception”: rather than stealing a secret from the subconscious of a business rival, Robert Fisher (played by Cillian Murphy), he wants to plant an idea into the mind of the rival: the idea that the latter should dissolve his own business empire. In order to plant Saito’s idea into Fisher’s subconscious, with the latter being convinced that it is his own idea, Cobb and his associates must plant the idea in the deepest depths of his subconscious, which requires them to construct three dream levels.
When Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) objects to Saito’s plan by claiming that it’s impossible to fake true inspiration, Cobb’s instinctive reply is: “It’s not true.” From a Girardian perspective it is clear what he means: There is no true inspiration in the sense of a monadic individual having an original idea detached from a social context. As Girard has pointed out throughout his oeuvre, this is the romantic myth of the isolated “truly” inspired individual that is at the core of Western self-sufficient identity. Cobb knows that all he can do, is exchange Robert Fisher’s mediator. This will change Fisher’s whole being, as the inceptors tie the idea that Fisher should dissolve his father’s empire to the very idea of the Freudian identification with the father. Fisher’s relationship with his dying father is strained and Robert, thinking that his Father is disappointed that he is not like him, conflictively imitates his model and decides to follow in his footstep.
When Fisher’s father dies and Fisher travels from Sydney to L.A. for his funeral, the inceptors sedate him on the plane and enter the deepest depths of Fisher’s subconscious. In a sense it is a travel back in time of Fisher’s psychological development to a place where Fisher’s relationship with his father was one of identification, where his imitation of his father was not yet conflictive. It is there that the inceptors make Fisher encounter a fake version of his father, who tells him to be his own man. But he can only become his own man because his father apparently says so. Thus he is not his own man at all but just imitates what for him is his father’s desire. But in reality it is Saito’s desire in disguise. If Saito can manage to become the model of Fisher’s desire without his knowledge, then he can evade conflictive rivalry. Fisher will cease to be a business rival of Saito and dissolve his empire. Saito will not have to fear an act of revenge from Fisher because Fisher does not know who his model is.
In this reading, the film is “simply” about Cobb entering Fisher’s subconscious, creating three spectacular dream spaces, planting the idea, leaving Fisher’s subconscious and receiving as a reward his freedom that allows him to return to his children. There are only minor complications, such as Fisher’s “militarized subconscious” which fights against being incepted in the form of heavily armed mercenaries that guarantee the appropriate level of “action” on the various dream levels.
Another “minor” complication is Cobb’s dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) who appears every now and then as a projection in the dream levels and sabotages Cobb’s plans. In this first reading, the tragic story of Cobb and Mal is simply a side-plot. We learn that Cobb and Mal experimented with dream-within-dream construction until they reached a place called “Limbo”, which is described as raw unconscious. Because in every additional dream level time passes more slowly, as the brain works more quickly, they grow old together in Limbo.
As Ariadne (Ellen Page), Cobb’s designer of dreamscapes for the Fisher-job, gradually grows to become his confidante, Cobb tells her how he realized that Mal started to believe that limbo was real. In order to take her back to reality, he planted the idea in her subconscious that her world was not real. Thus he was able to convince her to return with him to the real world. Because the only way to return from limbo to the real world is to die in limbo, Cobb and Mal throw themselves in front of an imaginary train and wake up again in the real world. There they are young again as only minutes have passed in the real world.
But the idea that Cobb has planted in Mal’s mind – that her world is not real – sticks even in the real world. She tries to convince him to commit suicide with her again so they can return to yet another real world and be with their real children. On their anniversary she throws herself from a hotel-room window and dies. Cobb, because he thinks the world they are in is real, does not follow her. He becomes a murder suspect, as his wife, in order to pressure him into joining her in suicide, left a document with her attorney stating that Cobb threatened to kill her. Thus Cobb becomes the mind-thief on the run, waiting for the opportunity to return home to L.A. to his children.
Because Cobb feels guilty of Mal’s death, her projection in his subconscious sabotages his extraction work. But with the help of Ariadne he is able to eventually forgive himself and purge his subconscious from Mal’s traces. Cobb is reunited with his children and has learnt to deal with Mal’s death and his guilt.
This version of the plot allows for many breath-taking Hollywood action scenes, incorporates a tragic love story and offers the viewer the satisfaction of closure. But again, it depends on the acceptance of Cobb’s ability to tell reality and dream apart.
Possibility 2: The Fan Viewing
But what if Mal is right? What if what Cobb thinks is real, is actually a dream? How can Cobb know that he is not in a dream? When Ariadne joins Cobb’s team, Arthur explains to her that every dreamer needs to have a totem: an object with very specific characteristics that only the dreamer knows. Thus even within a dream only the dreamer can imagine the totem and thus can know for certain that the dream world is not constructed by someone else. Cobb’s totem is a spinning top. But when he tells the story of Mal we find out that the top was actually his wife’s totem. For her, in a dream, the top would endlessly spin without toppling. After her death, Cobb just uses her top as his totem.
What if his wife is right and the reality they wake up to together is just another dream? Then she would certainly be right in suggesting that they kill themselves again in order to wake up to the real world. After all, Mal, with her totem, has a safe way of telling reality apart from dream. Significantly this would also mean that Cobb has no totem of his own, i.e. no way of being sure that the world he lives in is real. It is his wife’s interpretation of reality that haunts him throughout the film.
There are numerous shreds of evidence littered throughout the film that Cobb’s reality is indeed still a dream. His very team of fellow mind-thieves, rather than being fully-developed, realistic characters, are reminiscent of Jungian and mythological archetypes. Eames, a forger who can impersonate people in dreams, is the shapeshifter. Arthur, who explains to Ariadne how she can construct Escheresque, paradoxical staircases in dreams to deceive the subconscious projections of the extraction victims, is the trickster. Ariadne is the anima, whereas Saito, can be seen as the wise old man who brings Cobb safely home. Some critics have pointed to the lack of depth of the characters as a major flaw of the film. But to allow for a reading in which Cobb’s reality is a dream, Nolan has to keep Cobb’s supporting cast flat, as the characters are supposed to be pale reflections of real people. We begin to slowly understand why the film is impervious to criticism.
If Cobb’s reality is indeed a dream, then Mal has left Cobb’s dream by killing herself and only haunts him as a Jungian Shadow in his subconscious and reminds him of the possibility that he is wrong about reality. In this reading Ariadne’s role is, as in the Minotaurus myth, to lead the hero out of the maze. The maze signifies the ambiguity of Cobb’s world, the puzzle of whether his world is real or a dream. The monstrous Minotaurus in the myth absorbs the ambiguity and through its expulsion, Theseus, with the help of Ariadne, leaves the maze, the ambiguous world and restores a stable order.
In our second reading, the film is thus about the repression of Mal’s perspective and the eradication of any trace of ambiguity that would destabilize Cobb’s ordered universe. It is about Mal’s expulsion by Cobb. Just as the Minotaurus, in the Girardian view of myth represents the opposites of the demonized and deified victim, so does Mal represent the expelled perspective that threatens Cobb’s Cartesian binary of real and unreal. Mal’s perspective survives, like the perspective of the victim in myth, only as a trace in Cobb’s narrative.
The main plot of the Fisher-Job fades into the background. In this reading the Fisher-plot is simply an elaborate design to make Cobb’s return to the U.S. appear credible to his own subconscious. When he arrives at his home in L.A. he leaves Mal’s top spinning on the table and leaves without waiting to see if it topples or not. With this image the film ends, leaving the viewer hanging, as to whether the ending is real or not.
I’ve labelled this possibility of viewing the film “the fan viewing” because, discovering Mal’s perspective forces the viewer to reread, i.e. to watch the film again. Fans like myself, who, four days after its release have watched the film already multiple times, try to note even the least detail that might resolve the question of whose narrative the film actually supports. This is the world of the online fan forums. One fan, for example discovered that Cobb only wears his wedding ring in what he considers dream worlds, whereas he doesn’t wear it, in the real world. The wedding ring therefore is his totem that allows him to tell the difference between real and imaginary.
But once Mal’s perspective is discovered, Inception does not offer the viewer the satisfaction of closure. The wedding-ring argument that favours Cobb’s view of reality can also be constructed as supporting Mal’s narrative. If Inception is read as the expulsion of Mal’s perspective than the wedding ring can be taken as a symbol of Mal’s and Cobb’s union. In the world that Cobb takes for real, he no longer wears a wedding ring because Mal has already left that world. Their union has already been shattered. This might be, because she has either left Cobb’s dream world or is really dead. In the lower layers of Cobb’s dream world, Mal’s presence still haunts him. He has not yet separated himself from her: hence he still wears the wedding ring.
Let me just give one more example of an ambiguous piece of evidence. At the end of the film Cobb returns to Limbo with Ariadne to save Saito, who has died in the third dream level and therefore entered Limbo. There he encounters a projection of Mal and convinces himself that she is not real, that she is indeed just a shadow, that the real Mal is gone. Significantly Ariadne shoots Mal’s projection. But the fact that Mal is only a projection in Limbo supports both perspectives. If we follow Cobb’s view, she would naturally be just a projection in his subconscious because she is dead. But even if she is not dead, she would still be a projection because through her suicide, the real Mal has left Cobb’s dream world and is in reality. I could go on and on like this about every piece of evidence offered in the film. But what the evidence signifies depends on our decision of which model we follow: Cobb or Mal.
Possibility 3: A fully mimetic viewing
The driving question behind any viewing of Inception is the question about reality. In my first proposed viewing the question is settled from the very beginning of the film until the end: we have chosen Cobb as our model and trust him that he will take us through the many layers of the dream world and back. In the second possibility we are no longer quite sure who to trust and follow. Our interpretation of what is real oscillates endlessly from Cobb to Mal and back. We desperately want to know what is real but are aware that we can only decide by choosing one model at the expense of the other.
Does that mean that we have to abandon the question of reality in the film? Is Inception just a postmodern allegory in which both perspectives are coherent – or incoherent for that matter – from within their own argumentative logic but in which we can never choose one over the other?
I think there is a way out of the impasse. If we look closer at the two models available to us we realize that they are not so different from each other after all. Both Mal and Cobb claim to know the difference between reality and dream over and against the other’s version of the story. Cobb claims to have planted the idea of unreality into Mal’s subconscious, thereby positioning himself as model to her desire, but has to admit that the idea of having totems as arbiter of reality is Mal’s. Mal through her suicide tries to become a model for Cobb but fails because he does not follow her. They are mimetic doubles and rivals. Both offer us their version of a Cartesian reality of clearly defined categories.
Recognising their mimetic rivalry allows us to identify the only thing of which we can be certain in the film: Cobb and Mal were once together but are now separated in bitter rivalry. This perspective contains both previous possible viewings and offers us a further angle, in which the situation of Cobb and Mal resembles a messy divorce rather than anything else. Concluding this analysis, I will draw on Jean-Michel Oughourlian’s reading of the Biblical story of the Fall in his recent The Genesis of Desire to explain this last possibility of viewing the film.
When Cobb tells Ariadne the story of how he and his wife experienced Limbo, he uses paradisical language. In Limbo Mal and Cobb create entire worlds together. This paradisical idea of joint creation is captured visually by a stunning dreamscape of skyscrapers, built directly on the beach. The beauty of this world remains intact as long as they are together. When they commit joint suicide to return to the real world, they actually do not know whether they will return to reality. But to them it does not matter as long as they are together. After Mal’s suicide in the real world they both accuse each other of betrayal. Cobb because he thinks Mal has left him and the children, Mal because Cobb has not followed her. When Cobb and Ariadne revisit Limbo, the skyscrapers are in ruin, Cobb’s and Mal’s imagined world is falling apart because of their separation.
Limbo might not be a physical “reality” in the commonsensical meaning of the word that I have implicitly used so far in the analysis, but it captures what Oughourlian describes as psychological reality. Limbo before the estrangement is a harmonious place where the psychological reality lies in the mysterious transparency of the relation between two persons (34).
Psychological reality is according to Oughourlian not constructed by a monadic subject but through relation. It is relation that gives birth to selves (57) and opens up endless creative possibilities. When Ariadne enters Cobb’s dream world for the first time, she opens two giant mirror doors into the street so that they are facing each other. The mise-en-âbime of endless reflection signifies the infinite possibilities of two Girardian interdividuals creating in harmony. But Ariadne shatters one of the mirrors, which signifies the expulsion of Mal’s perspective from Cobb’s unconscious.
What Oughourlian observes in the case of Adam and Eve is also true for Cobb and Mal: Their relationship is sick (8). They fall from a state of innocence where there is no rivalry (70) to a state where both try to form their own solipsistic reality and engender the desire to incorporate and dominate the being of the other (62). Each becomes a prisoner of Cartesian dualism (101), forever caught in their own constructions of reality. In Oughourlian’s relational psychology these monadic constructions of reality are illusions (47). As Oughourlian further observes, it is the memory that brings back the otherness of desire (108). This is why Cobb, as he tells Ariadne, wants to change his memories, in order to forever expel the memory of his wife and of the paradise they had. Their mutual reality is lost because they have left each other. And that loss stings. Regardless of who of the two actually inhabits the physical reality, they have both lost their mutual psychological reality. This is why, according to Oughourlian, one can never get completely over a separation because each of the partners forms a unique part of that reality (111). Mal’s projection realizes that when she asks Ariadne, if she knows what it means to be half of a whole.
Inception offers no possibility of reconciliation between Mal and Cobb, as the relational sickness and the emotional distancing between the two continues to progress throughout the film. But it offers us an analysis of the mimetic mechanism between the two, buried beneath the blockbuster and fan viewings of the film, waiting to be brought to the surface. Thus we can at least learn from their mistakes, while enjoying the film as a blockbuster and as a mind-bender. Inception can thus be solidly placed within the Horatian tradition: It teaches and delights us.
 Jean-Michel Oughourlian, The Genesis of Desire, East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2010. Page references are in brackets in the main body of the text.
This article was first published on July 22, 2010 on The Raven Foundation website.