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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Memento

Introduction

Memento, directed by Christopher Nolan, is based on a short story by his brother, Jonathan Nolan, called “Memento Mori”. The film was released in 2000 and is described by Nolan as “a psychological thriller about a guy who can’t make new memories and who is looking for revenge”. It belongs to the neo-noir film genre, with some of the characteristic features of bleakness, alienation, paranoia, the presence of a femme fatale and the lack of a happy ending.

In an interview about the film, Nolan explained that he was very interested in the process of memory and in the way it can be distorted. He also stated that, in making Memento a film about an unreliable amnesic narrator, he had “attempted to put the audience into the head of the protagonist and make them experience some of his confusion, uncertainty and paranoia”. It is precisely for this reason that I believe Memento has much to offer the mental health practitioner, especially anyone working with individuals suffering from memory impairment.

 

Memento

Because memory is so deeply entwined with our sense of identity and is one of the means by which we understand our world, this film explores how it might feel to be unable to trust what we know about ourselves, and others that we meet. Because it uses a complex and unorthodox form of story telling, Memento challenges us, requiring a greater than usual degree of concentration and use of our own memory, in pursuit of the truth. Indeed, the film invites multiple viewings as we strive for greater understanding, again giving us the experience of a person trying to work out the world they are perceiving, when handicapped by an impairment of memory.

The Film

On this occasion, I do not intend to give a detailed description of the plot but rather to outline the complex structure of the storytelling as a guide to orientate viewers to the complex way the film plays with memory and time. Anyone wanting an “unspoiled” viewing of the film should stop reading now and return to the blog after watching it.

 

Memento is essentially a film of two parts, one filmed in colour and the other in black and white, intertwined together in alternating sequences that set out to explain the events leading up to the opening scene. The film’s opening sequence, in colour, takes place quite literally in reverse and is the only scene to do this. In it, we witness the revenge killing of Teddy, a policeman, by Leonard, the protagonist who suffers from anterograde amnesia. The sequences filmed in colour, tell the story backwards in short segments that play forwards, whereas the black and white sequences tell a storyline that unfolds in the conventional (that is moving forward in time) way. We discover that the black and white scenes preceded the colour sequences in chronological time. Often in the colour scenes we are thrust into the action with Leonard, sharing his lack of understanding about what he is doing in any particular place. We very soon learn that the strategy he uses to keep track of events, people and objects, and to attempt to make sense of his world, is to take polaroid photos which he then annotates. For the really important things that he wants to remember, he has them tattooed on various parts of his body. The final black and white scene seamlessly merges with the last colour sequence, bringing the whole film to an end as a complete piece of storytelling, but perhaps failing to provide all of the answers that the viewer may be seeking after the first viewing.

 

Ultimately, Memento is like a puzzle whose pieces can only be reassembled with the help of an intact memory. In contrast to Leonard, we can use our memory of previous scenes to inform our understanding of the consequences of his actions in the scene that we are currently watching.

 

Relevance to the field of Mental Health

Memento specifically explores the condition of anterograde amnesia and reflects the difficulty that sufferers have in appreciating the passage of time as they struggle to exist with very limited recent memory. For anyone wanting to gain a better understanding of what it might feel like to suffer from such a disability, this film captures some of the aspects of confusion and perplexity very well. By making the viewer unsure of what to trust in what they see through Leonard’s eyes, Memento can help the viewer to appreciate why such an individual may experience paranoia.

 

The film can also offer a starting point for a discussion about the different strategies that may be employed to prompt the sufferer into recalling recent experiences (autobiographical memories). There are many different rehabilitation techniques used to help individuals with anterograde amnesia. Some involve the use of compensatory techniques like mobile phone alerts or written notes and diaries, others consist of intensive training programmes involving the active participation of the person with their family members. Work by clinical neuroscientists in Cambridge, UK, comparing written versus visual aids for memory retrieval in memory impaired individuals, has begun to suggest that the recording of a pictorial, person-centred view of events, using a wearable camera, whose images are re-viewed later on a computer screen, may be an effective way to improve autobiographical recollection and one that is superior to a written diary (Berry E, Kapur N, Williams L et al; Neuropsychological Rehabilitation. 2007; 17(4-5):582-601; The use of a wearable camera, SenseCam, as a pictorial diary to improve autobiographical memory in a patient with limbic encephalitis: a preliminary report).

 

For anyone wanting to compare the fictional character of Leonard with a real person suffering from the same condition, the well-known case of the English musicologist, Clive Wearing, who has a severe form of anterograde amnesia, offers further insights into the disability. He is unable to remember more than 10-30 seconds at a time and has no detailed memories of his life before herpes simplex encephalitis damaged the hippocampi in his brain (one of the areas of the brain involved in laying down memories) more than 20 years ago. He is only able to recognise his wife, who he married the year before his illness. What is especially interesting is that he retains his previous ability to play the piano, because this involves procedural memory (involving other brain areas such as the basal ganglia and cerebellum). He featured in a BBC documentary about how humans experience time, which can be viewed via the Wellcome Collection website.

 

Another famous amnesic patient, an American man named Henry Molaison, died in 2008 at the age of 82. An excellent account of his life with anterograde amnesia, caused as a result of neurosurgery for epilepsy, is available in The Telegraph obituary published in February 2011. He was studied extensively for many years, and was particularly interesting because he retained his intellectual abilities and personality but was unable to live independently or to hold down a job. Leonard, in the film, illustrates just how vulnerable and open to exploitation someone is without a functioning short-term memory, which can help us to understand why someone with this condition might require supervised care, of some sort, throughout his or her lifetime.

 

Memento is a film that requires us to use our memory to the full, at the same time as giving us the experience of being in the world without it. I would definitely recommend this film to anyone interested in memory and its disorders.

 

 

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Comments

Re: Memento
....And for the Bollywood lovers - there is a simplified version available with the all the other usual ingredients - humor, love and nice songs. Ghajini (2008) is clearly inspired by Momento, and the protagonist suffers a similar predicament. Overall - a good movie too!
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1166100/
Re: Memento
I had always wondered if Memento (and even Inception) could somehow work with health science in understanding the mind and memory. Dear doctoral students: that would be a really great thesis idea!

best,
Chi
Re: Memento
Iam always fascinated about how memory works, Memento is an excellent example of anterograde memory loss and they way memory effects our thinking, perception and emotion.
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About this blog

 

Minds on Film is a monthly blog that explores psychiatric conditions and mental health issues as portrayed in a selection of readily available films.

Please note that this blog may contain plot spoilers. Any views expressed are purely my own.

Dr Joyce Almeida
Dr Almeida is a consultant
psychiatrist working in the private sector in the UK.