Christopher Nolan’s neo noir was created in 2000 and drew heavily from the Film Noir
genre, using it to include character archetypes and plot conventions.
The story revolves around Leonard Shelby, a man with Anterograde amnesia or short term
memory lost, Shelby seeks revenge on the man who assisted the rape and murder of his
wife, a mysterious John (or James) G. He uses polaroid pictures, notes and tattoos to leave
himself clues and reminders from memories he has lost. Through these notes he meets the
femme fatale, Natalie and begins a relationship with her, believing her to be one of the only
people he can trust. We learn about a character ‘Sammy’, a man with the same disorder,
Leonard investigated his case before the accident, and decided that the condition was
mental, not physical, believing to be a lie or a scam and his insurance company denied help,
‘Sammy’ ‘s wife tried to discover if this was true by having him give her insulin shots until
she went into a coma and ultimately died. As the film progresses we learn that Sammy
didn’t have a wife, that the wife in the story is actually Leonard’s, we learn that she survived
the attacks but Leonard couldn’t remember this and conditioned himself to remember he
death through Sammy’s story. We learn from Teddy that they had found his attacker
months before the film and killed him, but forgot this, so continued to look for the culprit,
killing several ‘John G’s, giving him a reason to live. Leonard tattoos Teddy’s details on
himself and conditions himself to believe he is John G, he resolves to kill him, linking back
to the beginning of the film.
3. Protagonist/Anti Hero-Leonard Shelby
Leonard demonstrates many
characteristics of a typical film noir
protagonist but also diverts from many
plot devices shown in noir, an example of
this would be that he is ultimately
responsible for the events in the film,
committing felonies without the
manipulation of others.
He is shown conforming to many of the
traditional motifs of film noir, for example
smoking and mental illness.
Due to his Anterograde Amnesia Leonard
is presented as morally ambiguous,
committing vile acts against innocent
people but only due to his
misunderstanding motivating his revenge,
not out of cruelty or spite, similar to other
film noir protagonists in this regard.
4. Femme Fatale-Natalie
Natalie is presented as they typical film noir,
shown to be independent and brisk,
stereotypically male characteristics supporting
the theory that femme fatale’s represent men’s
fear of powerful and independent women,
Leonard becoming dependent on Natalie, instead
of the traditional chivalry shown in the ‘golden’
era of film noir.
She is shown to be incredibly manipulative of
Leonard’s disorders, mocking him and revealing
her cruel intentions and motivations as she knows
he will be unable to remember it.
However she does contrast with the traditional
femme fatale’s in many ways, she wears black
clothing and a great deal of makeup, contrasting
with the innocent dress scene by other femme
fatale’s. While she is shown to be incredibly
manipulative and cruel, she doesn’t cause or
drive the crimes in the film, and is not responsible
for the protagonist’s downfall.
5. Foil to the Protagonist- Jimmy G
Throughout the film Jimmy is used a
foil for the protagonist , presented a
logical and moral to highlight the flaws
and psychological issues of Leonard. He
is presented as kind and reliable
throughout the film although it is
ultimately revealed that he was
manipulating Leonard, using his
confusion and memory loss for a profit,
and ultimately revealing the
protagonist’s mental state to the
audience. It could be claimed that
Jimmy is used to drive the plot of the
film, rather than conforming to a
typical role in the noir genre.
While typical film noir’s usually
take place in urban locations, like
cities, several scenes in memento
occur in rural, deserted locations,
contrasting with typical
presentations of neo noir.
Many of the scenes take place
urban locations where crimes are
more likely to occur like bars or
cheap motel’s conforming to
stereotypical, sleazy, crime
7. Use of Editing
Editing is incredibly significant in
Memento, the film shown out of
chronological order, making the origins of
the film’s events incredibly significant .
Events are shown in colour in reverse
order, while narrative breaks or
explanations are shown in chronological
order but in black and white,
differentiating these scenes from the rest
of the film. This presentation is shown
It could be argued that these relate to the
film noir convention of flashbacks,
conforming to the traditional editing styles
of film noir.
8. Use of Lighting
Lighting is significant in the film and
is used in a a variation of ways. In
the black and white breaks in the
narrative, high contrast lighting is
used to build suspense. In other
tense moments of the film, high
contrast lighting is used, keeping
the protagonist’s face is the
shadows but illuminating his
surroundings, perhaps relating to
the audience’s confusion and
misunderstanding of his immoral
actions. These lighting motifs are
featured heavily in the film noir
9. Use of Camera
Memento uses canted angles to
disorient and confuse the audience,
making the audience empathize with
his confusion and fear he feels.
The quality of the polaroid's also
encourage confusion and
misunderstanding, making it hard for
the audience and the character’s to
deduct or interpret the meaning of the
10. Use of Camera Continued
A significant shot in the film
would be the presentations
of Sammy’s life and the
revelation that Sammy is a
representation of Leonard
in his own mind, the shots
replicated to reveal this.
This is also extended into
the presentation of his
relationship with his wife,
scenes shot twice,
identically except one would
include a needle, relating to
his confusion and they he
distorted his memories to
suit his wishes.
11. Propp’s Narrative Theory
The labels Propp uses can be applied to three characters, Leonard, Jimmy
• The Hero- Leonard, despite his mental illness and vile actions is the only
character presented as moral in the film.
• The Helper (usually magical)- Jimmy, helping Jimmy find John G, and
assisting Leonard remember previous actions.
• The Princess or Prize- Natalie, the romantic interest or Leonard’s
deceased wife, who he fights to save and fixates on throughout the film.
• The False Hero- It could be claimed that Jimmy is a false hero,
presented early in the film as moral and kind, a victim, when he actually
exploits Leonard’s illness for his own material benefits.
12. Other Narrative Theories
Todorov’s theory does not meet the plot points of Memento, as the
story does not begin or end in peace, however the repetitive nature of
the plot could be compared to this, as the film begins and ends with
his need for revenge, his confusion making him start the journey again,
instead of feeling a sense of achievement for his actions.
Campbell’s theory dictating
character roles could also be
applied to the theory, the
Wise old man figure being
Jimmy and the innocent,
loving women representing
the idyllic presentation of
Barthes theory of enigma codes
could be applied to the film, with
much of the text open to
speculation, for example
Leonard’s fate and who he will
blindly kill next, leaving it ‘open’
for audiences beliefs.