The Sound of Regret in Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010)
Christopher Nolan’s reputable film, Inception (2010), took the world by storm with its colossal psychological constructions of the mind through the exploration of trauma, relationships, and regret. Nolan’s film—in regard to these predominant themes—can be analyzed effectively using a critical theoretical perspective: sound theory, which illuminates Nolan’s special attention to the fragility of identity, trauma, and manipulation through hyperreal dreamscapes.
Inception’s basic premise is as follows: Dom Cobb, a thief, joins with a group of trusted and skilled individuals to perform inception upon a man, Fischer, who is set to overtake his father’s business empire. Saito, the man who hired Cobb and also the business mogul who is threatened by Fischer, promises to help Cobb be reunited with his children if he can perform inception successfully and thus prevent Fischer from taking over the family business.
From the opening scenes, Nolan implants the concept of inception in the minds of his viewers as he causes the audience to question not only their reality, but also the film's reality. Through inverted dream sequences, Nolan’s main character, Cobb, is on a mission trying to extract information from the mind of wealthy businessman Saito. This concept could be known as extraction, whereas inception would be considered the opposite: implanting a thought or idea into the mind of another person. In this sequence, the audience is exposed to the dominant thematic and narrative-working song that appears repeatedly throughout the film, Édith Piaf’s French pop song ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’ which translates to “No, I do not regret anything.” The team of extractors try to retrieve the information from Saito through an imaginary dreamscape. As their mission progresses, they slowly begin to wake up, thanks to Piaf’s song playing through a headset each of them wears where they are in reality: asleep on a train. In this scenario, Piaf’s song plays as an instrument “within the storyline that lets the protagonists know that they will soon wake up from a dream level. It is…explicitly shown as a direct cue for waking up the protagonists” (Kania). This audio cue is used in hopes of locating audiences and characters within time (Stam, 222). In this sense, the music acts as “one of the narrative frameworks of the film” (Hayward, 264) to help orient not just the characters, but also“the audience geographically and temporally” (Kania).
The music of Inception holds a variety of functions, including helping to establish the emotion of the film for the audience. As a common motif, Piaf’s song still functions as a “kick” to awaken the characters, but more commonly acts to “influence the emotional content” of the film (Engel and Wildfeuer, 237)—“to tell [the audience] where [the film’s] emotional heart is” (Stam, 222)—especially in regard to Cobb. As the film progresses, audiences begin to learn that Cobb is a very tortured man who “grieves over the loss of his wife and is kept away from his children and home” (Perdigao 121). The lyrics of Piaf’s song, “No, I do not regret anything,” function against Cobb’s inner turmoil as he longs for his children and mourns the death of his wife, Mal. In this particular essence, the song plays a very different role than the standard “kick” and instead works—both to the composer and Nolan’s intention (Engel and Wildfeuer, 234)—to emotionally orient the audience (Engel and Wildfeuer, 243) to the “feel of the film” (Hayward 265) in order to place the viewers directly in contact with Cobb’s tortured mindset.
As previously established, the expert use of Piaf’s song is further exemplified in the fact that the music is always played for the characters when they are in a dream and used to wake them up. Yet, this is critical because the audio “realizes an imaginary world” that associates “the space and objects [of] the story space with another dimension, that compliments their temporal and spatial existence as representations” of reality (Belton, 334), which then further enhance the emotional state of the character and the audience's investment. In this regard, the song’s mournful and dramatic notes and lyrics not only reveal Cobb’s inner guilt over the death of Mal, but, even more prominently, compliments Cobb’s spatial relationship with Mal; he can only see her when he is in a dream, as she haunts and torments the recesses of his mind in an imaginative space.
To expand, Cobb spends the entirety of the film “filled with regret” as a result of him being the cause of Mal’s death since her suicide is the cause of him performing inception upon her. Here, Piaf’s joyful and optimistic song works to remind Cobb that there “is no reason for being regretful” (Engel and Wildfeuer, 241-242), because his act of inception upon Mal was an act of love. After being stuck in the depths of their own subconscious for decades, Cobb realized that both he and Mal could not continue living in a false reality, especially with their young children needing care back in reality. Thus, in an act of love, Cobb plotted to put his wife through inception, where he would invade her mind and cause her to question the stability of their subconscious “reality” in order to help encourage her to wish to leave. They then commit a form of suicide to help them wake up back in their true reality—the real world. Although once the couple enters back into true reality, Mal is constantly in a state of questioning what is real and what is not. This then causes her to literally commit suicide as she is so consumed with doubt and the belief that this death will allow her to awake in the real world. Knowing this, Cobb spends the entire film “caught within a never-ending loop of grief, spinning like Inception’s top” (Perdigao, 121). Yet, Piaf’s song works to try to erase the guilt, telling Cobb that informing Mal of the truth—that the place they had been for over forty years was fabricated—was necessary in order to cease living a delusional lie.
To conclude, Nolan’s world-renowned film, Inception, is one filled with the masterful use of narrative and emotion enhancing sound to force audiences to self-evaluate their own lives and the diverse realities they live. Inception packs a forceful punch in its awakening of the trauma and fragile identity within Cobb while also showing how Nolan clearly intended for his audience to experience the film with an open mind, wherein inception is thus planted in viewers and lingers long after, asking the question: is our reality real?
Belton, John. “Technology and Aesthetics of Film Sound.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, Seventh, Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 331–339.
Engel, Felix and Janina Wildfeuer. “Hearing Music in Dreams: Towards the Semiotic Role of Music in Nolan’s Inception.” Cinema of Christopher Nolan : Imagining the Impossible, edited by Jacqueline Furby and Start Joy. Wallflower Press, 2015. EBSCOhost, https://search-ebscohost-com.libproxy.calbaptist.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat02305a&AN=cbu.497219&site=eds-live&scope=site. Accessed 26 April 2022.
Hayward, Susan. Cinema Studies : The Key Concepts. 3rd ed., Routledge, 2006. EBSCOhost, https://search-ebscohost-com.libproxy.calbaptist.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat02305a&AN=cbu.112633&site=eds-live&scope=site. Accessed 20 April 2022.
Kania, A. (2015). Inception's singular lack of unity among Christopher Nolan's puzzle films. In J. Furby & S. Joy (Eds.), The cinema of Christopher Nolan: Imagining the impossible (pp. 175-188). Columbia University Press.
Perdigao, Lisa K. “‘The dream has become their reality’: Infinite Regression in Christopher Nolan’s Memento and Inception.” Cinema of Christopher Nolan : Imagining the Impossible, edited by Jacqueline Furby and Start Joy. Wallflower Press, 2015. EBSCOhost,
Stam, Robert. “The Amplification of Sound.” Film Theory: An Introduction, 1st ed., Wiley-Blackwell, 2000, pp. 212–223.