What’s in a song: the case of Christopher Nolan’s Inception
Overblown cinematography and excess of visual attraction are the key features in Christopher Nolan’s Inception (UK/USA, 2010), a film that eventually exhausts itself in its numerous tours de force. Yet, Inception’s multi-levelled phantasmagoria cannot escape to the mere materiality of the objects that regularly invade its cinematic space, and that are invoked for what they simply are: things. Throughout the film, their fastidious presence points towards a desire that Kracauer has identified as an “urge for concretion.” Not only does it provide a restraining counterpoint to the film’s constant negotiation of dream-like spaces, but it also mirrors one of cinema’s most enduring concerns: the obsession with the representation of the dense materiality of things.
In Inception, one of these things — indeed, the most important of all — is not an object defined by its tactile materiality, but the fragment of a song: Edith Piaf’s 1960 recording of “Non, je ne regrette rien.” In this essay, I argue that Inception privileges a haptic treatment of this aural fragment in order to present the song as thing. While this song may be replete with pre-existing connotations that could potentially impact on the audience’s perception, its reduction to a brief fragment renders the meaning of its inter-textual potentialities illegible, but also singles out its sonic fabric in the aural foreground. Thus the paradoxical choice of a “vintage” recording that literally clashes with the glossy artificiality of the visual treatment (from objects to actors themselves). Although located at the purely aural level, the song fragment nevertheless resonates with Nolan’s well-known claim to anchor his visual effects in “real life” by giving them a “realistic style of patina”.
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