Nolan’s Inception, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and the Femme Fatale

by Oscar Tirabassi, age 16
Nolan’s Inception, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and the Femme Fatale

“In fiction, a femme fatale is a mysterious and seductive woman — often a sexist stereotype — who will ultimately bring downfall to a man who becomes romantically or sexually involved with her.”

“You keep telling yourself what you know… but what do you believe? What do you feel?” (Nolan 133) Mal asks her husband, Dominic in the film Inception (2010). Perhaps she embodies what women are traditionally expected to do — to rely on emotion rather than sense, to have more EQ than IQ, and to use the heart rather than the head. In these brief lines, Mal tries to convince Dom to think in an emotionally charged way, hoping it will bring them closer together as a couple. (Mal no longer is alive, but the movie presents her in the same way as a real, tangible person, suggesting she should be treated as such.) Dom responds bluntly, but not without strain: “Guilt. I feel guilt” (Nolan133). She successfully pulls the confession out of him, exploiting his grief and regret for her own satisfaction.

Inception is indirectly based on a play by William Shakespeare: the famous “Scottish Play” Macbeth, whose titular character spirals into a rut of guilt, shame, and paranoia brought on by the women in his life. The witches play a game with Macbeth, providing glimpses of a future he can’t predict, making him feel foolish and stripping him of his masculinity — which in this particular case might be synonymous with “rationality.” To exacerbate the issue, Macbeth’s wife, known only as “Lady Macbeth”, manipulates him to kill King Duncan, not only so he can usurp the throne, but also so he can prove his worth as a husband. “When you durst do it, then you were a man / And, to be more than what you were, you would / Be so much more the man,” the Lady tells Macbeth. Once Macbeth becomes king, he’ll have no choice but to agree to have children and continue the royal line. The stress caused by these immoral activities makes Macbeth agitated and restless, and by the end, he’s led to his demise at the hands of an old friend — Macduff, the Thane of Fife. But according to the story’s subtext, Macbeth himself is never truly to blame. It’s always either the witches, with their evilness and “filthy” sorcery, or his wife, the master manipulator.

In an interview, Nolan described Mal as “the essence of the femme fatale”. In fiction, a femme fatale is a mysterious and seductive woman — often a sexist stereotype — who will ultimately bring downfall to a man who becomes romantically or sexually involved with her. This is a stock character used especially in “noir” films from the 1940s like The Lady from Shanghai or Double Indemnity. After the film noir period ended, “neo-noirs”, modern takes on the genre, started appearing: among them were Blade Runner (1982) with Sean Young, Blue Velvet (1986) with Isabella Rossellini, and Basic Instinct (1992) with Sharon Stone. Anyone who consumes a significant amount of TV or pulp fiction will start to notice this character appear frequently, with minor variations. The Top 40 single “Maneater” by Nelly Furtado and Timbaland, which employs this character to great effect. In the song’s extended outro, Furtado sings “You wish you never ever met her at all!” — a powerful cry indicating the destruction femme fatales employ on their lovers. Nolan’s description is therefore an apt one. Mal isn’t there to do much more than provide a source of misery for the male protagonist. With this one purpose in mind, the character comes across as underwritten: actress Marion Cotillard does her best with the challenging line readings. The script’s dialogue is simplistic and often ineffective, which indicates that Nolan is more focused on the mechanics of Inception’s dream-world than on the intricacies of his characters. If that wasn’t clear from watching the film, his willingness to sum up Mal’s personality in two words — “femme fatale” — shows he has more devotion to creating narrative puzzles than people. It seems Nolan could have done a better job with writing this character, but to give him credit, Mal’s underwritten-ness may actually have been a conscious artistic choice. When considering the idea that Mal is a “projection” of Dom’s mind, we understand that her personality traits are exaggerated and she is an imperfect reconstruction of the wife Dom once knew.

Lady Macbeth is similar to Mal in numerous ways. It can be argued that Lady Macbeth cannot be a femme fatale due to the period in which this story is set: there are no cigarettes to smoke or fedora-wearing detectives to deceive. However, there is one major sign indicating her as a forerunner — her manipulation of her husband. In Shakespeare’s world, women can be as ruthless as men, yet social norms deny them the ability to pursue power on their own. Lady Macbeth never outright kills Duncan, but she is instrumental in aiding Macbeth to commit the crime. In her character arc, Lady Macbeth does whatever she can under the constraints of being a woman; in fact, she maybe even harbors a secret wish to be a man. In Act 1, she delivers a monologue which includes several eyebrow-raising lines, including this one:


“Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty!”


She hopes evil spirits will remove her ladylike characteristics, such as her motherly instincts, and instead make her as cruel as any man. In another line, she asks the spirits to “come to my woman’s breasts, and take my milk for gall,” a rather extreme demand which suggests she wants to stop lactating. It’s clear Lady Macbeth means this metaphorically, but the idea that that she needs to become physically more masculine in order to commit this terrible crime is odd and disturbing, and brings controversial psychology to light. It’s Freudian in nature, seeming to echo his problematic and misogynistic idea of “penis envy”. The concept explains how, in a patriarchal society, women might envy the power given to those with a phallus. These lines were written before Freud was even born.

While Lady Macbeth is feminine in nature, the witches are certainly not. In fact, the first thing we learn about them is that they resemble men. They have beards, as illustrated by Macbeth’s remark “You should be women / And yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so.” This seems to foreshadow that they are men’s match in power and agency. Indeed, the witches are the most powerful characters in Macbeth — even more powerful than any man with a royal title. Women with immense power over men, like the “weird sisters”, are bound to be abnormal looking or acting women according to Shakespearean logic. Any “normal” woman in Shakespeare’s plays will not have copious power: the further women veer towards authority, the weirder they become. Of the major female players in Macbeth, Lady Macbeth is the least powerful, as she is only Macbeth’s husband and socially expected to be obliging and agreeable. Unlike the witches, she looks feminine and dresses customarily as an aristocrat of medieval Scotland. She might initially have some deep-seated desires of manhood, but by the time the play ends, she’s helpless and filled with regret, trying to wash away an invisible bloodstain.

The witches, similarly to Lady Macbeth, heavily influence Macbeth’s actions. Their repeated line “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” is the marker of their unpredictability. Though the witches do not deliberately advise Macbeth to kill King Duncan like Lady Macbeth did, they use a form of temptation when they inform Macbeth that kingship is his destiny. By placing this thought in his brain, they do what Lady Macbeth cannot — they bolster his manhood and give him an actual drive to pursue his ambitions. This is where the parallels between the two works fall apart: while easy comparisons can be made between Mal and Lady Macbeth, there aren’t any for the witches. If anything, Cobb himself acts as a magician, using “magic” (dream technology) to plant an idea in Robert Fisher’s head — the idea to break up his dying father’s business empire. Additionally, he less literally plants an idea in Mal’s head: a romantic fantasy. Dom indulges Mal in “limbo” for fifty years, and the two lovers build their own little dream world together, as time moves much more slowly than in real life. Mal refuses to return to reality, and when Dom forcibly wakes her, she decides to commit suicide by jumping from a hotel window — the site of their anniversary celebration. This causes him to feel the aforementioned guilt in a truly profound way.

The witches, along with male royalty, are the most powerful agents in Macbeth. It should be noted, however, that while both witches and kings have power, the witches have a type that is more inherently feminine. They’re the only ones possessing supernatural, magical abilities — possibly the most feared ability in all of literature. The witches can make any man believe anything by just whispering in his ear. In this case, they use their abilities to gain Macbeth’s trust, build up a false prophecy, and then bring him to his demise. It could also be argued that the intrinsic fears men have of women are represented by the supernatural abilities of the witches. Women are more cerebral than men, which is why this form of power is more believable than having them be bloodthirsty barbarians who can gore any man with the swing of an axe. Of course, Shakespeare is also attempting to drive a wedge between the sexes and show a sense of mistrust between them. The witches have something much scarier than kingly power because it can’t be explained: why they, of all people, poor, lowly and haggard, deserve to have it; what they plan to do with it; and even the scope of what can be done with it.

possibly the most feared ability in all of literature. The witches can make any man believe anything by just whispering in his ear. In this case, they use their abilities to gain Macbeth’s trust, build up a false prophecy, and then bring him to his demise. It could also be argued that the intrinsic fears men have of women are represented by the supernatural abilities of the witches. Women are more cerebral than men, which is why this form of power is more believable than having them be bloodthirsty barbarians who can gore any man with the swing of an axe. Of course, Shakespeare is also attempting to drive a wedge between the sexes and show a sense of mistrust between them. The witches have something much scarier than kingly power because it can’t be explained: why they, of all people, poor, lowly and haggard, deserve to have it; what they plan to do with it; and even the scope of what can be done with it.

So, the question: Who is responsible? Is it Macbeth, or the women giving him bad advice? It’s Macbeth who actually carries out the murder of Duncan, and Macbeth who unwisely hires contract killers to murder Banquo, so in the most literal sense, it’s Macbeth’s fault. We don’t know what Shakespeare would say, but many would point to the witches and Lady Macbeth as his answer. According to them, his writing of women in the play is questionable at its best and blatantly sexist at its worst, showing the remnants of an alarming agenda — the idea that the influence of women can erase a man’s free will completely. I personally believe Shakespeare’s ambiguity surrounding this element of the story is intentional, but it doesn’t really matter — Shakespeare is appealing because we know so little about him and what he created. Some scholars have even speculated that the Scottish Play we know and love today is just an abridged version of a lost, complete manuscript, which adds another layer of mystery to Shakespeare’s psyche. Nolan, conversely, is alive and well, and willing to explain everything he creates. His narratives are less poetic and more workmanlike than Shakespeare’s, airtight with no plot holes or narrative gaps — and leaving no space for poetry. For instance, Inception, despite being a film about dreams, is filled with exposition, and it’s more restrained than other cinematic depictions of dreaming such as Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway by David Lynch. An architect of words and images, Nolan crafts films that may require more than one viewing to fully understand, but are always incredibly deliberate in their execution. While Nolan and Shakespeare deal with similar themes relating to guilt, free will, and the relations between the sexes, they are far from two sides of the same coin.

Works Cited:

http://shakespeare.mit.edu/macbeth/full.html

http://www.raindance.co.uk/site/scripts/Inception.pdf

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.