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Marion Cotillard in 'Inception': Is she the good wife? Or the bad? Does she even have a personality?

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inception-cotillardBy all means, let’s keep talking about Inception: What a pleasure it is, in this arid summer for big movies, to have a big movie out worth talking about! (Anyone have anything to talk about in the matter of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice? Anyone?) If you’d like to take a break, though, from the topic of the architecture of Inception and What It All Means (or does it?),  I suggest detouring to a discussion of the role of Marion Cotillard’s Mal, the dead wife of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom. For one thing, the topic allows me to include a photo of Marion Cotillard, a Frenchwoman of arresting beauty with a gaze unnerving enough to throw her audience into reveries. And for another, there’s something about Mal that intrigues me, bothers me, and otherwise haunts my waking hours.

I commented in my review about the particular resonance of the character’s name, with a spelling —  Mal — that connotes evil and a pronunciation — Moll — echoing slang that mean’s a gangster’s girlfriend. What I didn’t consider at the time is the notion that, in fundamental ways, Mal drives the whole story. Because Dom feels guilty about Mal’s death, she intrudes on his subconscious. Because she intrudes on his subconscious, she affects both his waking and his sleeping life. Because she destabilizes his dreams — showing up univited brandishing knives, guns, and invitations to suicide — Mal is the most powerful element in Dom’s universe. She’s also, arguably, the only player on Christopher Nolan’s whole chess board who expresses spontaneous passion rather than contained, intellectualized emotion: When she’s needy, or angry, she weeps or brandishes a weapon. Sometimes both. (When Cillian Murphy’s character, Robert Fischer, feels something about his dying father, he blinks once and checks his smartphone.)

And yet. And yet for all Cotillard’s glares and crystalline tears, I never really feel Mal’s pain, because I don’t for a minute believe The Dead Wife was ever a real half of a couple, bound by recognizable human intimacy. Of course, you could argue that Inception is not supposed to be a movie about real characters, especially not when one is called “the architect,” one is called “the forger,” etc. But if the woman played by Cotillard is supposed to stand in for little more than The Dead Wife then…why is she such a destructive force? Why does she invade her husband’s sleep, ruin his work, make such a mess everywhere she shows up? Why must she be a Tragic Wife as well?  Mal is one of all of two female characters in the whole picture, and she’s a nightmare.

She looks beautiful, though, right?

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