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It seems Christopher Nolan does not agree with Mercutio. Quite early on in Romeo and Juliet (1594- 5), we learn what the latter thinks of dreams:
Romeo ‘Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace! / Thou talk’st of nothing.’
Mercutio ‘True. I talk of dreams’ (1.4).
Nolan clearly places, however, a lot of structural importance on the dreams in Inception (2010): each one provides a different narrative thread, all of which are tied together by someone asleep in the film’s real life. Indeed, some go so far as to say that dreams, rather than nothing, are everything in the film.
While this suggestion seems to tie up some apparent loose ends (such as Cobb’s (Leonardo DiCaprio’s) children that do not age), it is, in a sense, too neat a reading for a film that revels in oneiric ambiguity. Part of the enjoyment of watching the picture derives from the tensions between dreamscape and (the possibility of) reality: we’re invited to ask how these two states affect one another. Romeo also wrestles with such questions: ‘If I may trust the flattering truth of sleep, / My dreams presage some joyful news at hand.’ (5.1) The question that lingers behind the first line (‘can we trust what we see in dreams?’) is a warning, of sorts, to those who wish to draw thick lines between dream and reality and to expound confidently how they relate: Romeo evidently can’t trust the ‘flattering truth’, as, in the end, he and Juliet lie, not married, but dead.
My favourite shot from Inception also has a parallel in Romeo and Juliet, though this time I mean the 1996 film version by Baz Luhrmann. Despite the whizz-bangs of folding cities and paradoxical staircases, it is a (relatively) simple interior near the beginning of the film that stays with me: it is when Cobb meets Saito (Ken Watanabe) in a room decorated with gold and in which innumerable hanging lanterns are doubled in a large reflective table. The shot reminds me of the closing of Romeo and Juliet, when the camera moves slowly upwards, revealing the two corpses surrounded by countless small candles.
Whether or not multiple light sources are actually Nolan’s signature remains to be seen, but the shot is a beautiful way to open a provocative film. It’s exciting to see a picture cause so much discussion and debate. Nonetheless, before a viewer tries to suggest too forcefully that she has worked out what’s definitely going on, she could bear in mind Bottom’s words in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595): ‘Man is but an ass if he go about t’expound this dream.’ (4.1)