Reconstructing Memories of Masculine Subjectivity in Memento:
Narrative Form and the Fiction of the Self

Caroline Bainbridge
University of East London
London, UK

This paper explores the ways in which fictional subjectivity intersects with narrative form to produce a fiction of selfhood and masculinity in Christopher Nolan's film Memento (US, 2000). Drawing on psychoanalytic discourses of subjectivity and gender and trauma theory's work on memory, the paper argues that masculinity has become a culturally empty category that can be interrogated and problematised through efforts to reconstruct it through the textual representation of memory and its failure. As a narrative of the self, and bodily alteration have a central function in this narrative, enabling issues relating to the psychological dimensions of masculine subjectivity to be explored. The paper also explores the narrative effect on the film's spectator by considering the dimension of cinematic affect and its resonance with cultural and gender politics.

As Candy has already suggested, my paper scrutinises the representational collapse of hegemonic masculinities in Christopher Nolan's Memento (US, 2000) by interrogating the film through the lens of psychoanalytic perspectives on the perceived crisis in masculinity. What is it about this film, with its peculiar structure and narrative form, that inflects our sense of how the fantasy space of cinema can contribute to a broader cultural understanding of what masculinity means in the postmodern age?

Nolan's film is an intriguing text for a number of reasons. Formally, the film is inventive and confusing, to the extent that the narrative structure inflects the filmic narrative and alters our sense of its layers of meaning. Nolan claims that, at the level of form, this apparently complex narrative is, in fact, rather linear in structure; it is a linear narrative reversed. This rather oversimplifies the actual structure of the film, though, as there are two strands of narrative present in the film. Firstly, there is the narrative we see unfold in colour, which we are meant to correlate to the first person experience of Leonard, the film's protagonist. This is the reversed narrative that reveals itself incrementally, seemingly hopping from end to beginning through the story the spectator is working to comprehend. The spectator, here, is asked to identify with Leonard as the subject of the narrative. Secondly, we have a narrative that is represented in the black and white sequences of the film. This strand unfolds in a more traditional manner, moving forward in time. It is further distinguished from the primary narrative by the fact that it resides in the space of the second person. As spectators, here, we function as auditors to a message that is conveyed predominantly through the use of voice-over with the images accompanying seeming to represent the present experience of Leonard in the motel room or the past memories of a story that functions as a kind of metaphor for the one we are watching. The puzzling connection between these narratives is central to our sense that the movie does not simply involve solving a puzzle. There are a number of fleeting shots and clues embedded in each of these narrative strands to sustain our sense of puzzlement through to and beyond the end of the film. In addition, there is confusion created by the film's opening sequence (which is shot in reverse). This sequence is the only sequence in the film without an overlap. There is a perceived gap between the end of the story (the second colour sequence) and the assumed outcome that is presented as a possible future outcome but simultaneously undone by the nature of its representation, its being screened in reverse. For the spectator, then, this is a demanding movie. On the one hand, we are asked to read the colour sequences in the usual manner by decoding the discourse it proffers. On the other hand, the black and white sequences seem to function as a site of exchange – we are not being presented with a story but rather with something akin to conversational gambits that invite us into a dialogical relation with the narrative. We realise very early on that we are being asked to contribute to the meaning being made as the story unfolds, and that our engagement with the narrative is integral to the meaning it will eventually have (though I think we only realise the extent of this participation once we reach the end of the film). The consequence of this is that the spectator is left with no sense that this is a story that resides in the past or that has a discernible ending. The diegetic present insists within our viewing experience and, as I will argue, has consequences for the spectator's relationship to affect or pleasure in the film.

In considering the structure of the film, it seems impossible to put aside the centrality of the experience of masculine subjectivity that dominates the narrative. Our protagonist is a man who is trapped in an endless present, a man, who, we are told, has no capacity for new memories. The last thing we are told he remembers is his wife dying. He has no means of gauging the time that has elapsed since this traumatic event because of his condition. Leonard's present life is a constant round of recognising clues and deciphering puzzles in order to avenge the murder of his wife and sustain a sense of justice in a world of turmoil and confusion. The character here seems generic, fulfilling a role familiar to us from film noir as the disaffected flawed (male) hero struggling to assert justice in some shape or form in a muddled and confusing world that seems to thwart all his efforts. This critical strain within film theory is well known and links such representations of masculinity to the socio-historical context of post-WW2 America and the psychological and emotional difficulties implied in the necessary re-working of the experience of masculinity that the events of this time entailed. For Nolan, Memento is a contemporary example of film noir, and it would seem important to examine the contemporary context of masculinity in order to get to the bottom of what the film has to tell us about the experience of masculine subjectivity in an increasingly postmodern setting in which confusion can be hailed as multiplicity and the terror of disintegration is disavowed as an opportunity to flex our gender constructs in increasingly empowering ways.

At the heart of this film and its representation of masculinity lies an extraordinary and overwhelming sense of lack or emptiness that prompts me to think of Lacanian accounts of the subject and desire. Psychoanalytically, a lack in being is central to a gendered relation to subjectivity within the symbolic order that parallels a supposedly feminised relation to language and culture. The phallocentrism implicit in such readings testifies to a mode of reading that is politicised and contentious in almost equal measure. What happens to notions of masculinity in such a context? And how does Memento enable us to think through this conundrum in ways that help us to escape the recuperative strategies deployed when this psychoanalytic tale is put to work in defence of symbolic certainties?

In Memento, the male body functions as a prop, as a key for the spectator struggling to make sense of what they are seeing. This is particularly evident in the tattoos written on Leonard's body. The body here becomes a signifier for both Leonard and the spectator of that which eludes Leonard's memory and his capacity for representation. The act as a constant marker of the castratedness of the position occupied by Leonard in the film, a position that functions to underscore the sense that knowledge and its attendant sense of mastery in the world is perpetually absent in this narrative. The tattoos themselves seem to spell out the failure of this mastery and might be seen as simplistic metaphors for contemporary masculinity ("Don"t trust your weakness"; "Memory is treachery"; "Notes can be lost"). Through the tattoos and the film's play with them as mementoes of an event that can only ever perpetually be recalled rather than accepted and assigned to the past, the body becomes the site of the failure of a notion of masculine subjectivity that is premised on mastery and control. Through the tattoos, Leonard is marked by loss (the loss of his wife and the loss of the symbolic certainties of masculinity). The tattoos define for us a desire for revenge that can never adequately be symbolised. Leonard seems to be defined in terms of traumatic loss here, a loss which can be theorised in terms of the death drive and the motivations of aggression and compulsion to repeat that characterise it.

This, then, is a representation of masculinity that seems to be defined in the context of trauma. Leonard functions throughout the colour narrative as though he is endlessly trapped on the brink of the so-called second moment of trauma that is so crucial to the recognition of the prior moment of trauma to which it refers. The second moment of trauma can be defined as the moment in which the randomness of an event triggers memories of an earlier one which might never have come to consciousness had the later event not occurred (Lukacher, 1986: 35). As Laplanche and Pontalis point out, the connection between trauma and the death drive is fascinating. After trauma, the psychic apparatus struggles to immobilise immense quantities of excitation in an effort to restore the capacity for an engagement with the pleasure principle (Laplanche & Pontalis, 1988: 465). In Memento, the pleasure principle is endlessly deferred because of Leonard's condition. Unable to make new memories, Leonard is unable to master the dominance of the immense quantities of excitation prompted by his own moment of trauma, the moment of his wife's apparent murder. The problem for Leonard is that he is constantly at the point of recognition that his wife's murder accounts for his condition, but, because of his inability to make new memories, the fact or truth of the experience can never fully be grasped. As Laplanche and Pontalis suggest, in trauma, the memory of the first scene occasions an influx of stimuli that overwhelm the ego's defences (1988: 467). The traumatic nature of the first moment of trauma can only be ascribed to it after the fact. This is the principle of nachträglichkeit or deferred action. Leonard is trapped by the overwhelming stimuli associated with his condition and he can seemingly never attain such a deferral. Instead, he becomes trapped in a compulsion to repeat that amounts to an attempt to work out such a deferral. The overwhelming death drive that dominates the plot can be understood in relation to these psychic mechanisms. This is the narrative perspective that elicits our identification and empathy with Leonard, the perspective that ultimately betrays us when the twist kicks in at the end.

Leonard is revealed at the end of the film as the most unreliable of unreliable narrators. Our dawning realisation of his skewed psychological world permits the logic of truth that is perceived in the narrative to become riddled with holes and gaps. Our sudden comprehension in the film's final sequence (the narrative opening) prompts a realisation that Leonard's death drive is all-consuming and bound up with the possibilities of narrative resolution. Leonard's desire at the end/beginning to renew a need for a target in choosing Teddy and the deliberation on how and whether to allow himself to do this reveal a deception at the heart of the filmic representation of his character and this forces the spectator into action and re-action in order to comprehend the filmic affect. The film's apparently traumatic representation of masculinity which seems to function as an elaborate metaphor for the contemporary experience of masculinity is revealed here as fraudulent. Our identifications and empathies are undone as we take on the second moment of trauma for ourselves and realise that the premise of the film itself constitutes a traumatic rupture in our expectations of cinema. Leonard's duplicitousness and self-conscious desire at the end of the film to construct Teddy as his new target and his deliberation of how and whether to allow himself to do this, reveals a deception at the centre of the filmic address. This is a shock for the spectator. We have been encouraged to trust no one but Leonard throughout the narrative but at the end he is revealed as the most untrustworthy character of all. His self-deception can be understood as trauma, but, I wish to argue, we are duped here. The representation of masculinity with which we have been engaging amounts to a masquerade of trauma. Our shock at the end of the film prompts us to return to the beginning in order to try to decipher the clues that might have rescued us. The tattooed body gives this duplicitousness away in flash shots that we are too slow to see on first viewing. The materiality of the film and filmic techniques collude to conceal moments of material textual confession that attest to the cruelty of the play with the spectator. There are at least two subliminal shots in then film that reveal the slippage in the narrative on careful viewing. It is, then, arguable, that the holes in this narrative contribute to our sense of the lack at the heart of it. As spectators, we are plunged at the end into a realisation that our identifications have been premised on this lack and that it is the structure of the narrative that has made this possible. This amounts to a kind of textual deceit, an undoing of the potentiality of cinematic pleasure. We are used to cinema addressing us in ways that allow us unthinking access to pleasure, but, in Memento, the possibility of pleasure depends on a willingness to engage with the specificity of the film's process of enunciation. We are asked to surrender our usual relation to story in order to access the potential for pleasure, but the trust we extend to cinematic technique in order to do this is shattered and revealed as a cynical manipulation of patterns of identification at the end of the film. We are left in a subjective relation to the film that at the very least parallels the psychic experience of trauma. In order to get the narrative joke, we need to have sat through it and got to the end in order to perceive it as an event. The revelation of the joke and that fact that it is on us prompts us to re-examine the events in question in order to have a sense of mastery over the narrative truth

The sadism implicit in the textual motivation undoes our relation to what we have seen, convinces us to re-view in order to seek out a truth that is not readily discernible. One viewing is not enough. The pleasure of the film is altered by each viewing and, paradoxically, ever more frustrated by its insistence on rendering us incapable of making meaning. Leonard's compulsive repetition of events elicits similar behaviour in the spectator. Our capacity for memory of what we have witnessed is undone by the narrative structure. We become intrigued by the attempts to recall memories instead of seeking to recall the events that trigger them. The truth of history and our history in the text are ultimately missing from the film. We are positioned in the realm of nachträglichkeit in which no real textual event is available to us. The event is rendered in terms of experience, affect in terms of a past whose meaning can only be realised in the present. This is why the narrative structure of the film takes the form it does. In identifying with Leonard, we leave ourselves little room to appreciate the meaning of the past because we collude in trapping ourselves into an endless present. The back and white sequences of the film contribute to this by seeming to present us with a form of truth rendered as confession. The forward progression of the narrative in these sequences helps to foster a sense of security in what we are reading as meaning. It encourages us to feel safe in the endless present of the colour narrative structure. What we are left with is a seemingly endless deferral of a solution to the puzzle whose possibility is undone by the ending of the film. As we realise that Leonard has been masquerading, that there is more to the truth of his experience and memory than the narrative structure leaves room for, we become aware of the ways in which we have limited our scrutiny of the truth. The perceived trauma of Leonard's existence suddenly becomes clear as we cross the threshold of our own second moment of trauma and realise the extent of the deception we have entered into. The trauma we have attributed to Leonard is displaced onto the spectator and experienced as affect that needs to be deflected through mastery. Repeated viewings, especially through DVD technology, enable us to gain some sense of control over the meaning of this film, situating and constructing us in a more familiar position in which it appears that we can take control of this process. (Does the film trap us into a masquerade here, perhaps, and does this suggest that we are therefore aligned with this masquerading version of masculinity in transition? Raise this in closing remarks/discussion.)

What Memento offers, then, is an extraordinary example of a play with notions of enunciation and nachträglichkeit by means of the masquerade of trauma. The backdrop for this playful rendition of the cinematic process is the contemporary context of masculinity as perceived as being in crisis, and, perception, here, is the key to understanding the implications of this film for a notion of contemporary masculinity.

Recently, Juliet Mitchell has highlighted the fact that trauma vacillates between the poles of absolute absence and presence, between perception and non-perception. In short, she argues that it is necessary to distinguish between memory and perception when trying to comprehend the nature of trauma. In trauma, what returns is neither the past event nor the memory of it. Instead, it is the perception of a situation, event, or object that reminds the subject of a past event (2000: 315). Mitchell uses these observations as the basis for a series of claims relating to the experience of trauma and the possibility of male hysteria. She argues that in experiencing an absence of something that guarantees our survival, we experience a kind of totalising absence that is perceived as death. In this situation, crucially, we become what we need, we take on a guise in an effort to deflect the truth of the absence and its unbearable association with death. At the root of trauma and its deflection or recognition, then, lies hysteria, the source of the masquerade.

In Memento, Leonard can be seen as adopting an hysterical masquerade of trauma in order to deflect the overwhelming sense of emptiness implied by the fact of his condition. In never fully being able to step across the boundary or threshold of the second moment of trauma, Leonard is trapped in a sense of emptiness that is characterised as death and meaninglessness. His remarks at the end of the film relate to this. As the spectator begins to realise the extent of the textual deceit, Leonard comments that he has to believe that his actions have meaning. We realise that Leonard has taken on the mask of the man with a condition in order to deflect and project the sense of emptiness or Bion's "nameless dread" that is the consequence of his being trapped in an incomplete experience of trauma. His memory cannot be formulated. He is trapped in the realm of perception. His condition becomes an hysterical reaction to this, and the textual collusion with Leonard's hysteria compounds our inability to comprehend.

What does this mean for the truth of the narrative and/or for the truth of Leonard's subjectivity? It no longer makes sense to see Leonard's experience in terms of trauma. The film's refusal of traditional story structure renders its discourse into that of the hysteric. The slippage from trauma to hysteria becomes the key to understanding the filmic discourse of masculinity. Its fragmentation and fracturing necessitates a degree of posturing around the difficulty of managing the disintegration of masculinity without sliding into femininity. The text is hystericised and this is experienced as a kind of textual trauma in which the spectator feels tricked, hijacked, twisted by the twist. Such a reading enables us to reconsider the film's play with contemporary notions of masculinity. When we see what we have not perceived in the film, we become shifting subjects, vacillating between poles of absence and presence that seem to thwart patterns of symbolisation, language and control. The shift away from Lenny's question 'so where am I?" upon waking near the beginning of the film to 'so where was I?" at the end of the film can be understood in these terms. It is a shift from the discourse of trauma to the discourse of the hysteric. Thus, though throughout the film the first moment of trauma seems to haunt both us and the narrative, it is the second moment that needs to be sought out, and Leonard's hysterical discourse is what enables the spectator to take up this responsibility.

In conclusion, what the narrative seems to imply is that masculinity is fictionalised as a kind of trauma on the contemporary scene when it ought to be read as hysteria. The marked male body and the role of masquerade in the film are reminiscent of cultural associations with femininity. (It is fascinating that in revealing the twist at the end of the film, the death of Leonard's wife is rendered less certain for us. It is as though in order for masculinity to be traumatised, Woman needs to be removed from her role as reflective guarantor of hegemonic male desire. She needs to become that which is lost: the trauma masks itself by displacing the violent gesture on to that which can be sacrificed. Once Leonard's condition is considered as hysterical, however, the possibility of the feminine is reinstated: it is as though these discourses of masquerade and hysteria need to be aligned with the feminine as psychaoanlysis has always suggested. We should wonder at what this implies for the representation of masculinity here and perhaps reflect on its occupation of a space akin to that of the feminine, a space of transition and tentative exploration. 2nd discussion point.) It is the experience of loss that is crucial to masculinity here. What is it that is lost? A fiction of masculinity and sameness? A fiction of the mastery of narrative? The mystery of this narrative seems to imply both of these, but it also rejects them as inadequate in terms of the puzzle it presents. Structurally, the film helps us to raise important questions about the nature of gender and the interpellation of the subject in a contemporary postmodern climate in which identity if ever more elusive and the fixities of psychic stability are rendered ever more impossible. Masculinity is arguably not traumatised in postmodernity. Instead, it adopts the guise of traumatic neurosis as an hysterical symptom. This has an effect on structures of viewing and patterns of knowledge that , arguably, undermine logocentrism and locate the specificity of the subject in the gap between memory and perception. It is in its play with these ideas that Memento arguably re-presents to us the psychic status of contemporary masculinity as adopting an hysterical response to notions of its perceived crisis.


Laplanche, J & Pontalis, J-B (1988) The Language of Psychoanalysis, trans. D Nicholson-Smith. London: Karnac Books.

Lukacher, N (1986) Primal Scenes: Literature, Philosophy, Psychoanalysis. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press.

Mitchell, J (2000) Mad Men and Medusas: Reclaiming hysteria and the effects of sibling relations on the human condition. London: Penguin Books.


Memento, dir. Christopher Nolan, USA, 2000, prod. Newmarket Capital Group.