Friday, August 26, 2011

Inception: Power, Revenge and Frustrated Staircases

Viewers tend to focus on the toy top left spinning at the very end of the film, and trying to decide whether or not Dom (Leonardo DiCaprio) is lost in limbo; what's more important about the toy top is that it's upside down; the top, is the bottom, and the bottom, the top. Obviously, Ariadne (Ellen Page) in Christopher Nolan's 2010 Inceptioninvokes the ancient Greek myth; but what's not so obvious is the way Nolan "perverts" it. "Perversion" is a very handy word to know in art because it literally means "turn upside down," (in terms of sexuality it means taking something that should not be used sexually and making it sexual). Nolan's entire film is a perversion of the original Greek myth.
A Hindu or Indian form of labyrinth with a spiral in its center very similar
to the third example of a maze which Ariadne draws for Dom in Inception.
In the original myth, the Athenian hero Theseus goes to the island of Crete to settle an old score between the Cretens and Athenians by slaying the Minotaur within the labyrinth. When he arrives, Ariadne, the daughter of Cretan King Minos, falls in love with Theseus and gives him a thread so that, after he slays the Minotaur, he will be able to find his way out again; in exchange for the thread, Ariadne makes Theseus promise to marry her, which he agrees to. After slaying the Minotaur and finding his way out, Theseus, Ariadne and the other Athenians, sail from Crete but Theseus abandons Ariadne on the island of Naxos, while she is asleep. The god Dionysus later comes and claims Ariadne as his bride. By giving this character the name "Ariadne," knowledge of the myth means knowledge of her: her motivations, her vulnerability and even, her destiny.
Theseus slaying the Minotaur.
In Nolan's film, Dom assembles a team to do the "inception" job, which he has to do or Saito (Ken Watanabe) will kill them for botching an earlier job. Going to his father-in-law Miles (Michael Caine) he meets Ariadne who is an even better architect than himself. Dom takes her into a dream to get her familiar with what they are going to be doing, and then she does something "impressive"...
The most important moment in
the film in the background of the poster.
She pulls up the road and literally perverts it, she turns the dreamscape city upside-down (which is in the theatrical poster above) then opens "mirrored" doorways while closing others, leading the way through.
Construction of Xanadu, Charles Kane's
luxurious prison from Citizen Kane.
As they stand looking at themselves in a "infinite reflection" in a mirrored wall Ariadne has created, Nolan invokes the 1941 film Citizen Kane when Kane (Orson Welles) stands in a wall-size mirror in his palace Xanadu and creates an infinite reflection of himself: just as Xanadu is a pleasurable prison for Kane to spend the rest of his days as an old man full of regrets, Adriane does the same thing for Dom. She has completely altered the "structure" of the dream and by aggressively taking over what Dom had created originally, she is now the architectFrom that moment on, for the rest of the film, it's Ariadne's dream and Dom can't escape.
How deeply must he go to find "the real" Kane?
(Likewise, Kane refers back to the toy sleigh of his childhood, "Rosebud," while Dom refers back to a child's toy of a spinning top; Kane longs to get back into the idyllic childhood, whereas Dom longs to get back to the idyllic reality of his children). The "infinite reflection" into which Ariadne and Dom stare reflects the infinite depths of a dreamworld that Ariadne will create to entrap Dom,. . . because this is a film of mazes.
Opening Dom's safe and taking control.
In the myth, Ariadne gives Theseus a thread to help him find his way out; in the film, she alters the landscape and cityscape so that he can't find his way out. Mal is the Minotaur (because "mal" means "bad or evil," such as "malevolent" or "maleficent"), and instead of being a hideous male beast, in the film, it's a beautiful woman; Theseus wants to kill the Minotaur, but Dom doesn't want Mal to die; Ariadne is left asleep on Naxos, but she leaves Dom asleep in the water.
A labyrinth with death at the center;
from the de Medici collection, Florence.
In the original myth, the Minotaur's Labyrinth belonged to Ariadne (she was known as the "Mistress of the Labyrinth") but the original dream in the film belongs to Dom, which Ariadne takes over as her own. Theseus wants to escape the maze, Dom doesn''t want to escape the dream because his children are there. How do we know, at this point, that Dom is still locked within the dream? Michael Caine, who plays Miles in the film, explains his interpretation of the end of the film as, "If I'm there it's real, because I'm never in the dream. I'm the guy who invented the dream."
The face of the new Minotaur, Marion Cotillard.
Yet, with all due respect, Mr. Caine is ignoring that, if this is Ariadne's dream, Miles is in essence "her father" as well because he gave birth to her as an architect and, since he was the one who "brought" Ariadne and Dom together, there is every reason why Ariadne would place Miles in the dream: Miles would be a part of Ariadne's unconscious just as he is part of Dom's. Similarly, since we have never seen the faces of Dom's children--we have no objective reference for them--these are actually Ariadne's children because they are born of her imagination. (Consider how Eames, the forger, makes himself into a beautiful woman to distract Fischer, this is the same strategy Ariadne uses for Dom's children, they are forgeries). 
When Dom and Ariadne are walking after she has turned everything upside down, Dom tells her, "Never create from memory"; but she's lying when she says she created it from her memory, she's creating from Dom's memory, the memory she has stolen from him the same way he steals from others. Everything she does is to "tease out" what is inside of him so that she can trap him, instead of leading him to safety. The question is, why would should do this to Dom, someone she has just met?
When Dom and Ariadne sit in the cafe, and he tells her they are in a dream, everything begins to explode. She has been raped. Dom has gone into her (subconscious) and she doesn't like it one bit, and the devastation of the area where they are, validates that she, herself, has been devastated.
The top has been turned upside down.
On Ariadne's chessboard.
This is a very complex film, so I am just hitting on the high spots. But, in short, Dom isn't lost in limbo, he's lost in Ariadne's Labyrinth.
Let's quickly examine some ways to determine who is in control. Ariadne is obsessed with Dom and his inner-life: all she talks to him about is how out of control he is over Mal and what is going on so she can gain access to his secrets. By keeping Dom's attention focused on Mal, Dom loses sight of what Ariadne is doing to him just as Ariadne lost sight of how Dom brought her into a dream at the cafe that explodes. Shortly after Ariadne has turned the dream city upside down, Mal appears and stabs Ariadne. If this is Ariadne's dream, why on earth would she inflict that on herself? Ariadne wants to bring out the "malicious" in Mal so Dom will focus his attention on Mal instead of becoming alerted to Ariadne's control; it's the same thing Dom (thinks) he's doing to Fischer by telling Fischer he is Mr. Charles and is there to help him instead of letting him figure out that he is there to invade him; Dom, as Mr. Charles, doesn't want Fischer to know who the real enemy is, and Ariadne wants Dom to think he has to get control away from Mal, not from Ariadne.
Everyone is perverse in this film.
Ariadne has staged her own "inception" in Dom's mind of convincing him one, that he's out of control with his emotions; two, that Mal trying to wrestle control from Dom (instead of letting Dom know Ariadne is wrestling control from him) and thirdly, that the inception job for Fisher is working (remember, the whole heist is Ariadne's dream so she's the one pulling it all off and she's doing it to keep Dom distracted the way Dom was distracting Saito in his dream). If Dom begins suspecting that Ariadne is in control, she won't be able to finish getting her revenge, so she plays it out to lead him deeper and deeper into a maze. Keeping all this going on keeps Dom's unconscious sleeping to who is the one actually in control. And there is a fourth reason: she wants a job placement. When Miles introduces Dom and Ariadne, she asks him if he has a job placement for her; she wants that as badly as Dom wants a way home. (This was in 2010, how many college students are concerned about finding jobs? Like, all of them).
Without the small ring, it looks like Dom's wedding ring he doesn't take off.
Let's consider the totems briefly. We know that Arthur has a loaded die, and he is the only one who knows which side it will always fall on; Ariadne's is a chess piece, that we know nothing about, but it's a sign that she's playing games; there is nothing special about Dom's top, i.e., it's not loaded, it doesn't change colors, there is nothing "unpredictable" about it that only Dom knows.
A bad totem.
It's easy to forge, and I would like to suggest that's exactly what Ariadne does, and anytime it looks like he's checking reality, she's tricking him. You never see any of the other characters checking their totems, you never see Arthur throw his die or Ariadne... doing what her chess piece should do... Dom has a bad totem because he has no check on reality he can depend on. 
The Ring of O, which the above ring is modeled on, featuring a maze.
These are "power plays" Ariadne makes against Dom and "power" has important role in this film. Dom, stands for Dirty Old Man in BDSM; if you think this is a stretch, remember, when you say "Saito," (Watanbe's character) is sounds like "sado" for sado-masochism. Our dreams contain our most vulnerable selves, that's the point of Dom's security, is to protect or exploit dreams to get what he wants. In sado-masochism, the "bottom" is known as the person who gives up control, and the "top" is the person who takes control; the person who willingly takes on either role is known as a "switch." When Ariadne turns the dream world upside-down, she is literally reversing or switching their roles, and this refers to her "repressed sexuality." This comes up when Mal confronts her and asks her, "Have you ever been a lover?" and little Ariadne says, "No." In Greek, "Ariadne" means "utterly pure," but in Inception, Nolan perverts that to  mean "utterly perverse." The wedding ring Dom wears resembles the Ring of O above; the above ring is modeled on the second ring which contains a maze and is a symbol worn by those practicing BDSM throughout Europe so they can be identified. Why would Nolan incorporate these elements into his story? Control: sado-masochism and BDSM is all about control, and in the most fragile environment of the dream, you have to have control.
Dream a little bigger, darling.
To continue the thesis that the movie is perverted, in the original myth, Dionysus--the god of the wine harvest and of ritual madness--finds Ariadne on Naxos and claims her as his bride. In Inception, Dom brings them Arthur and Ariadne together, and Arthur is hardly a god of ritual madness, rather, Eames mocks him for being so uptight and not having any madness about him.
The bed is right there in plain sight.
According to Sigmund Freud, one of the symbols in dreams used to identify the sexual act is the going up and down of staircases; in Inception, Ariadne and Arthur go up and down the Penrose Stairs, an impossible object, but when translated into an expression of sexuality, becomes the perpetual act of delaying the sexual  act, because it never climaxes at the top. Why Ariadne desires Arthur, because she has no sexual experience and because of her "rape" by Dom (in the cafe where everything becomes devastated) she wants a relationship with Arthur, but not one that will end up like Dom and Mal.

A model of the optical illusion Penrose Stairs used in Inception.
If the Penrose Steps are a symbol of repressed sexuality, then Ariadne is fulfilling a wish of not fulfilling the sexual act. In the hotel room, Mal asks her if she has ever been a lover, and she says no, and she never will be; this manifests her desire for control, to have Arthur as a non-threatening lover, to entrap Dom who threatened her and to successfully pull off a major inception all on her own.
Bacchus (Dionysus) and Ariadne on Naxos by Titian.
If I am correct, and the perversion of the original Greek myth is a plausible reading of the film, then the relationship with Arthur and Ariadne continues the perversion: whereas Dionysus finds Ariadne abandoned on an island, Dom introduces them--supposedly in a building; whereas Dionysus claims Ariadne as his bride, in Inception, Ariadne (because she's the one in control in the dream) really claims Arthur by dreaming him into wanting him to kiss her. And, last but not least, whereas in the myth, Ariadne and Dionysus are married, in Inception, there is nothing but the Penrose Stairs and the perpetual "delaying" of the consummation.
Sleeping Ariadne, Vatican Collection, Roman marble.
In conclusion, Ariadne pursued Theseus in the original myth, and trapped him into a pledge of marriage so he wouldn't become entrapped in the maze; in Inception, Dom finds Ariadne, traps her in a dream, rapes/invades her subconscious, then she traps him and destroys his unconscious the way he tried to destroy hers. The film is about power and control, about revenge and the attempt at hiding within your dream even as the dream is supposed to reveal.