FORGET ABOUT IT: AMNESIA IN THE MOVIES

"Why don't you still want to remember anything?" Delphine Seyrig in L'année dernière à Marienbad.

“Why don’t you still want to remember anything?” Delphine Seyrig in L’année dernière à Marienbad.

Letty’s not dead! But oh dear, she’s hanging out with the bad guys and shooting at her ex-boyfriend, Vin Diesel. Why? Because she’s suffering from amnesia, which makes you do anything the screenwriters want you to do! Fast & Furious 6 uses one of the oldest tricks in the book to resuscitate a character who bit the dust two sequels ago, paper over plot holes, and provide the hero with all the motivation he needs to drive faster and more furiously.

Where would movies be without amnesia? There would be fewer Philip K. Dick-style SF mind-games, for a start. Less of Tom Cruise learning the truth about himself in Oblivion, or James McAvoy getting bopped on the head and forgetting where he stashed that valuable painting in Trance. Getting bopped on the head, by the way, seems to be the preferred movie method of turning amnesia or or off, like a tap.

And there’s Iain Softley’s Trap for Cinderella, based on Sébastien Japrisot’s novel (already filmed by André Cayette in 1965), with Tuppence Middleton surviving a housefire that leaves her needing extensive plastic surgery, her memory wiped and her best friend dead… You see where this is going? Part of the fun is the film knows you know, so it takes that and runs with it. Nobody liked this  much when it came out… except me, because I’m sucker for Preposterous Thrillers involving amnesia, plastic surgery and fraught female friendships. And Middleton is another one of those charismatic, quirky young actresses – the new St Trinian’s Generation – with adorably madcap names (see also: Tamsin Egerton, Ophelia Lovibond, Talulah Riley) whose talent seems fated to be squandered by the British film industry while it falls over itself trying to shoehorn Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch or Eddie Redmayne into everything.

 

Amnesia and flashbacks go together like fish and chips. We’re all familiar with the device of the fleeting recurring motif to signify fragments of resurfacing memory, such as Cruise’s glimpses of the Empire State Building in Oblivion, or a woman’s voice repeatedly encouraging amnesiac Eduardo Noriega in Abre los ojos (or Cruise in the inferior American remake, Vanilla Sky) to open his eyes. We’re also familiar with the last-minute reveal in which a flurry of flashbacks (with or without voice-over) fill in all the gaps in the plot – the montages that show Mickey Rourke (and us) who murdered all those people in Angel Heart, or that finally jog Tom Berenger into remembering what went down before the car crash that robbed him of his memory at the beginning of Shattered.

The most common use of amnesia nowadays seems to be in the “Who am I really?” scenario, in which we share an amnesiac protagonist’s viewpoint and process of self-discovery as they seek the truth about themselves – a truth that rarely turns out to be palatable, since where would be the fun in discovering you used to be, say, a happily-married accountant? No, in Total Recall, Cypher, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Unknown or Source Code, the recovered memories invariably patch together an exciting past as a secret agent, hitperson, despot or helicopter pilot.

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Lucy Liu in Cypher.

Often overlapping with Who Am I Really? is Dark Secret Amnesia, in which traumatic memories are suppressed and have to be coaxed to the surface for the story to be resolved. Thus in Hitchcock’s Spellbound, amnesiac Gregory Peck is unable to remember either the accidental death of his brother, or the murder of a doctor whose identity he then assumed – and it takes a lot of TLC from Ingrid Bergman and a Salvador Dali-designed dream sequence to jog his memory.

black_angelAmnesia is a recurrent theme in 1940s film noir, reflecting the uncertainty of the times and malaise of the post-war male. Forget The Hangover films – the best use of Alcohol-related Amnesia is in Black Angel (adapted from a book by Cornell Wollrich, patron saint of the mental black hole) in which Dan Duryea’s efforts to find his wife’s murderer are hampered because he went on a drunken bender that destroyed the vital memory cells.

But it’s not all anguish; amnesia is also a favourite comic device, leading to amusingly out-of-character behaviour. In the adorable rom-com Overboard, rich bitch Goldie Hawn falls off her yacht and is persuaded she’s hardworking housewife and mom to Kurt Russell’s four unruly children; housewife Rosanna Arquette gets bopped on the head in Desperately Seeking Susan and starts thinking she’s Madonna, while in A Chump at Oxford, Stan Laurel’s forgotten identity as posh “Lord Paddington” resurfaces when he gets hit on the head by a sash window.

And we mustn’t forget Romantic Amnesia, as seen in The Vow, 50 First Dates, Regarding Henry and, granddaddy of them all, Random Harvest. The object of your affections has forgotten everything, including you. How to rekindle the love you share? Or is the only solution to make them fall for you all over again?

Conversely, remembering is not always all it’s cracked up to be. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey actively seek to have memories of heartbreak erased. And as Jason Bourne says, “Everything I found out, I want to forget.”

trap_for_cinderella_ver2_xlg

I've been trying to remember things, CLEARLY remember things, from my past, but the more I try to think back, the more it all starts to unravel. None of it seems real. It's like I've just been dreaming this life, and when I finally wake up, I'll be somebody else.

I’ve been trying to remember things, CLEARLY remember things, from my past, but the more I try to think back, the more it all starts to unravel. None of it seems real. It’s like I’ve just been dreaming this life, and when I finally wake up, I’ll be somebody else.

La ardilla roja (The Red Squirrel): Lisa loses her memory in a motorcycle accident; a suicidal musician takes advantage of the situation to pretend she's his girlfriend. But does she really have amnesia? With funny, thrilling, thought-provoking results.

La ardilla roja (The Red Squirrel): Lisa loses her memory in a motorcycle accident; a suicidal musician takes advantage of the situation to pretend she’s his girlfriend. But does she really have amnesia? With funny, thrilling, thought-provoking results.

Sullivan's Travels: Sully gets hit on the head, forgets he's a famous film director and ends up on a chain-gang. I now wish I'd included this as it's one of my favourite films.

Sullivan’s Travels: Sully gets hit on the head, forgets he’s a famous film director and ends up on a chain-gang. I now wish I’d included this as it’s one of my favourite films.

Guy Pearce in Memento.

Guy Pearce in Memento.

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Naomi Watts & Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive.

This piece was first posted on the Telegraph website in June 2013. It has been edited and added to.

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8 thoughts on “FORGET ABOUT IT: AMNESIA IN THE MOVIES

    • Thanks Stubarr! Great link. “50 First Dates maintains a venerable movie tradition of portraying an amnesiac syndrome that bears no relation to any known neurological or psychiatric condition”

      Also reminded me I wrote this before Before I Go To Sleep, which seems to have a premise similar to that of Clean Slate (which I’ve never seen; might track it down now) – the memory wiped clean every night, so the protagonist has to start afresh each morning (first thing I’d do is get some speed and try to stay away for several days and nights on the trot – at least that way you could gather more information about your situation).

  1. My papa, a medic tells me that amnesia is rarely accurately portrayed in art. But nevertheless, artists/filmmakers/writers do make wonderful use of it.

  2. I’m not sure if it fits exactly, but “L’empire des loups” (aka: Empire of the Wolves)* does an interesting twist on some of these themes. Screen play by Jean-Christophe Grangé, who also wrote Crimson Rivers. Can’t say much more without getting into spoilers.

    (* Note: Does not contain wolves.)

  3. STILL ALICE post-dates this piece, of course , as does Zhang Yimou’s latest, COMNG HOME (Gong Li fails to recognise her husband when he returns from imprisonment post-Cultural Revolution.)

    • Thanks Eyeswiredopen. Ah yes, Alzheimer’s. I’m not sure it falls under the category of plot device as opposed to illness or medical condition. Unless, of course, The Deep Blue Sea. Or De zaak Alzheimer. OK, maybe I do need to add an Alzheimer’s-related addendum.

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