Staunch Test Senior Film Writer Fred Onyango explores the fate of women in director Christopher Nolan’s work.
As the credits rolled, silence filled the room – nobody was entirely sure if the next person just witnessed what they had. Suddenly, the cinema hall was filled with a roaring ovation. A rookie director had everyone on their feet at the Venice Film Festival, 2000. The film was Memento. It went on to do a successful tour on the festival circuit, culminating in rave reviews with critics and audiences alike and an Academy Award nomination. It was clear to everyone – a star is born. The young British director was Christopher Nolan.
He made his start in Hertfordshire in the early 1990s, making films using the money he made from screenings as the president of the film society of his college. After he graduated, he worked his way up the industry through script reader jobs and applying for funding from various schools. Although it resulted in a handful of highly regarded short films, this quickly became unsustainable and he decided to self-fund his first feature film Following. Even early on, his style is easily recognizable to his fans: a neo-noir that plays with the element of time.
As his career progressed, though, another recurring theme was noticed – his treatment of female characters. There’s a running gag that in most, if not all of his movies, ‘the wife always dies’. In Following, an author who follows strangers around in London looking for material for his next novel somehow falls into a rabbit hole orchestrated by a serial burglar and a blonde nameless woman who is murdered at the end. Memento is a complex neo-noir thriller about a man with short term memory investigatine the rape and murder of his wife. Insomnia is about a police investigation of the murder of a 17-year-old girl. In the Dark Knight Trilogy, Bruce Wayne’s love interest dies, with the exception of the first film where his parents get killed. This is constant throughout his entire filmography except in Dunkirk which only focuses on the young men fighting for their country at war. So in a sense, yes, the critique of how women characters are always discarded in Nolan films is true on a surface level.
However, when you dig a little deeper you’ll notice Nolan’s focus starts shifting from small conceptual work into more grand personal work that nears abstract – which is just not the norm in cinema. As he started out his career, he was making film noir and rehashing all the tropes of that genre; most importantly a mysterious leading man who is a private eye and ends up having a complicated relationship with a femme fatale who usually ends up either betraying him or dying (usually both), this can be found in 6 of his first 8 films. But even in that era of his career, it’s still clear that his personal twist on this trope is that the femme fatale has a big impact on the leading man’s life and losing her causes him great anxiety.
Much in the way that Pablo Picasso slowly shifted from figurative work into abstract work, though, Christopher Nolan followed suit when he finally finished working on the Dark Knight Trilogy. He soon started uttering the term ‘it’s to be felt, not to be understood’, first as a description of Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which he credits as a huge influence for all his work, then soon afterwards as a description of his own work. And that’s when he made Interstellar, and broke new ground in the sci-fi genre and the main female character was not just a prop for the male character’s inspiration or comeuppance, but rather one with a fully fleshed character arc.
His films always had a personal touch but it was at that point that it felt like he was considering blind spots not only in cinema as an art form but his own filmography. He eventually switched his cinematographer, editor, composer and even worked with a leading man who was not white.
It feels like a new era of his career. In his last film TENET the leading lady was dating the villain of the story and she got to get her retribution herself. The critique of what is lacking in his revered filmography have long existed and its good to finally see him responding, if only gradually.