One movie that has had everyone talking this summer is “Inception,” Christopher Nolan’s twisty thrill ride through the realm of dreams. If you’ve been wondering about some of the hidden meanings of the film, why the characters are named the way they are, or what the film’s music really means, then read on.
Be aware, however, that this article contains spoilers, so if you don’t want to know important plot points, you may want to stop reading now. It’s really best to see the movie before you read this.
I wondered, after seeing the movie, if there was a hidden meaning behind the French language song that is the signal for the dream team members to progress to another dream level. There are some interesting features to the song, which is Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien” (No, I Regret Nothing).
The secret to this choice of song is that French actress Marion Cotillard, who plays Mal in the movie, portrayed Piaf in the 2007 film “La Vie en Rose” and won an Oscar for her role, so it’s a bit of a nod to Cotillard and her considerable talents.
Also, the film’s main score is based on the Piaf song. A popular YouTube video (click here to hear) contrasts the song at regular speed with a version that is greatly slowed down; the slow version does resemble the “foghorn” part of the score that signals significant happenings in the film.
Composer Hans Zimmer has stated in an interview that he did base his score on the song by extracting several notes from it and using them as a musical “signpost.”
I also made note of the fact that Mal’s name has a very obvious meaning – “bad” or “evil” in Latin and related languages. IMDB has other fascinating insights into other characters’ names, among them the fact that the name of the main character, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), is the phonetic word for “dream” in Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi. And the name of the chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao) is a Arabic version of Joseph, who in the Bible was the interpreter of dreams.
Also, the meaning of the name Ariadne (Ellen Page) is significant. In Greek mythology, Ariadne helps hero Theseus escape from the Minotaur’s labyrinth, just as Ariadne in “Inception” helps Cobb escape from limbo.
As for the overall meaning of the movie, there are any number of theories floating around on the Internet. One is that the entire movie is Cobb’s dream, including the conclusion. Another is that most of the movie is a dream that Cobb has while sleeping on the airplane, and he has incorporated his fellow passengers into it, but he does wake up and go home.
Another, of course, is that the movie’s seemingly happy ending is just another dream by Cobb, and that Cobb has not awakened, but is permanently fixed in a dream state. There is uncertainty, based on the spinning top at the end, which would remain spinning if Cobb were in a dream, and would fall if he is not. All the audience sees at the very end is the top spinning and then starting to wobble. Since we never see the top fall, the end is ambiguous and it’s up to the viewer to decide if Cobb is still dreaming or not.
Yet another meta-theory making the rounds is that the entire movie is really a commentary on movie-making and/or the creative process, with each character standing in for part of the process – Cobb is the creator/director, Adriane the writer, and so forth. Mal is seen as the creator’s muse or his nemesis.
If “Inception” is a veiled look at movie-making, then it also is a commentary on how movies themselves are like dreams, and that the catharsis experienced by the viewer is valid, whether it’s a dream or not. And perhaps that is the real message of “Inception” – in the end, the reality doesn’t matter, as long as the creation inspires true feeling.
Personal viewing of “Inception,” August 2010