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By Antoine du Rocher

NEW YORK, 23 JULY 2010 — In Gosford Park (2001), Robert Altman's stylish evocation of the British Upper Class, Hollywood film producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban), a short, self-important, culturally tone-deaf, gay American, who produces Charlie Chan mystery movies, gamely describes his latest project, Charlie Chan in London during dinner at a shooting weekend at a country estate.  When Mr. Weissman declines to reveal how the film ends, suggesting that he would not want to spoil it for the other dinner guests. Constance, Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith) quips, without missing a beat, "Oh, none of us will see it."

While manifestly a withering insult to the oblivious Mr. Weissman, it just might be the appropriate snub for this year's much ballyhooed summer blockbuster, Inception.

A science fiction thriller of staggering pretension and awfulness (think Angels and Demons on designer steroids), Inception tells the improbable tale of Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a consummate thief in the creepy art of extraction: stealing valuable secrets from other people's minds by surreptitiously slipping into their dreams. Cobb's rare ability has made him a coveted player in this treacherous new world of corporate espionage, but it has also made him an international fugitive and cost him everything he has ever loved, notably his late wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard) and two surviving children (Les Fleurs du Mal) in America. One last, highly-lucrative job could give him his life back but only if he can accomplish the impossible — inception. Instead of the perfect heist, Cobb and his team of specialists have to pull off the reverse; their task, should they accept (à la Mission Impossible), is not to steal an idea but to plant one. "This tape will self-destruct in five seconds". Pitifully, Inception self-destructs in less time than that.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanabe and Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception, 2010
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

The extraordinary sophistication and weightlessness required to convince a well-informed movie audience of this conceit is simply beyond the craftsmanship of those involved. Neither director (Christopher Nolan), nor actors manage to dominate the badly written material, much less create the necessary suspension of dis-belief needed to conjure the utterly fantastic for two and a half hours. Clearly, Leonardo DiCaprio and Ken Watanabe, both gifted artists, but miscast in this inglorious affair, don't believe a word of what they are saying. The dialogue is simply too ludicrous. 

 The female characters are of little or no interest and plagued by inaccurate cultural references such as  architecture prodigy, Ariadane (Ellen Page), more of a mournful little nymph than the Mistress of the Labyrinth as her name would suggest, who, incidentally, flashes a gold and crocodile Cartier wrist watch as a very young architecture student at the "collège" in Paris. In France, a collège is a middle school for pubescent children, not a faculté at a university. If the filmmakers are alluding to the prestigious Collège de France in Paris, this is a free, public institution where distinguished French scholars of the humanities, applied and social sciences dispense year-long univerisity level seminars for non-matriculating public auditors; it is not a degree-granting school of architecture. Be that as it may, well brought up girls of the French bourgeoisie are unlikely to wear such visible signs of wealth or luxury as students unless they are the daughters of rich foreigners, notably Middle Easterners, or the mistress of a much older man. In either case, peu  fréquentable

Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception, 2010
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Despite the significance of urban architecture as metaphor for human dream construction, Tokyo, Los Angeles and especially Paris have been reduced to little more than banal opera sets for the film's aesthetic, social and intellectual posturing. The irony here is that the city of Molière was not only the birthplace of symbolism (Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Verlaine) and surrealism, but in more recent times a hot bed of polemical critique over la science onirique (dream science) where organic chemists and budding neuroscientists matched wits with eminent research physicians such as Michel Jolivet, controversial psychoanalysts such as Jacques Lacan or the brilliant philosopher Michel Foucault (who held a chair at the Collège de France) over concepts such as le génie onirique, and la structure nocturne. Instead, one is treated to a confusing, at times risible cocktail of pseudo physics and psycho babble between Mr. DiCaprio, his mentor (Michael Caine) and a dicey, but presumably ingenious Mombassa-based psycho-pharmacologist (Dileep Rao) cast and played to sterotype by a young south Asian (in scenes beautifully shot in the narrow alleyways of the Grand Souk in Tangiers, Morocco). Soon after, when the film attempts to speculate about death and the Mediaeval Christian, specially Roman Catholic, belief of limbo, one shudders at the shallowness of thought.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Inception, 2010
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

In matters of conception and visual art, so much of this film is blatantly derivative,  referencing earlier and vastly superior works in this genre such as Blade Runner (1982) and Black Rain (1989) or Grade B cult science fiction films such as Flatliners (1990), Altered States (1980) and Forbidden Planet (1956), where the "monsters from the id" of a highly intelligent alien race, the Krell, and their IQ-boosting technology, eventually bring their species to extinction in a single night; or even Fred Astaire's mesmerizing elegance in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's 1951 comedy Royal Wedding where he, free from the confines of gravity, is seen to dance on a hotel room's floor, walls and ceiling. The illusion is flawless and a far cry from the heavy-footed effects of Inception.

So, no matter what the trailer and Internet hype promise, Inception is hardly more than the standard Hollywood scherzo about money, power, redemption and showing off. The layering of historical images of myth and allegory, as shown in the film, is badly constructed and the Eureka strategy of mirroring —i.e., the dream within the dream — functions less as a framing narrative and more as a stage for a vulgar barrage of gratuitous visual violence, special effects and bad music. 

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Inception, 2010
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

On that note, Hans Zimmer's brutal and deafening score is mostly Fascist industrial dead weight stitched together with a soupçon of Goldfinger and The Omen. An otherwise talented film composer (GladiatorMission Impossible 2, The Thin Red Line, Driving Miss Daisy), surely Mr. Zimmer could have sought inspiration from better sources such as Hungarian composer György Kurtag's Grabstein für Stephan (Gravestone for Stephen) (1989), a rich, dark work scored for spaced groups of keyboards, tuned percussions, gongs, football supporters' alarm signals and whistles, reeds and brass, and low strings, all positioned around a solo guitar, or Kurtag's equally compelling Stele (1994), a perfectly chilling three-movement funeral symphony. In a pinch, the German composer could have considered the Royal Drummers of Burundi. Instead, Mr. Zimmer and IMAX technology seek to obliterate the human ear-drum with the relentless poundings of trite symphonic techno- trivialities.

For those Culturekiosue subscribers with a little time this summer, two hours would be better spent at the Edward Hopper exhibition at the Fondation de l’Hermitage in Lausanne. The American painter addresses the same existential concerns as Inception — minus the gigantism — with far more insight and aesthetic power (not to mention considerably less noise). If travel is not an option at this time, Skira in Italy has published a superb monograph / catalogue on Edward Hopper to accompany the show's viewings in Milan, Rome and Lausanne. Equally relevant and fascinating, are the shows of the Tanzania-born British architect David Adjaye currently on view at the Design Museum in London, Cuban artist Carlos Garaicoa's installation, No Way Out, on view at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin and the ambitious designs of the young Mexican architect Fernando Romero and his practice, LAR (Laboratory of Architecture) in Mexico City.

Headline title image: Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception, 2010
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Antoine du Rocher is Managing Editor of Culturekiosque.


BOOK TIPS: chosen by the editors as being of interest to Culturekiosque readers

Edward Hopper
Carter E. Foster (Editor), Carol Troyen (Contributor), Sasha Nicholas (Contributor), Luigi Sampietro (Contributor), Demetrio Paparoni (Contributor)

Hardcover: 280 pages
Skira (May 2010)
ISBN-10: 8857202836
ISBN-13: 978-8857202839

Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines
By Richard A. Muller

Paperback: 384 pages
W. W. Norton & Company (September 2009)
ISBN-10: 0393337111
ISBN-13: 978-0393337112

CD TIP: chosen by the editors as being of interest to Culturekiosque readers

Stockhausen: Gruppen für drei Orchester
Kurtag: Grabstein für Stephan op 15c; Stele op. 33

Berliner Philharmoniker
Claudio Abbado, conductor
Deutsche Grammophon 447 761-2

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