Within a minute of Jean Tatlock’s (Florence Pugh) introduction in Christopher Nolan’s new film Oppenheimer, we see her naked. In one of the most surreal mainstream sex scenes put to film, Tatlock gets off Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) mid-coitus to retrieve a Sanskrit book from his wall. She then proceeds to sit back atop his hips and make him read the line that would define him in the public consciousness: “And now I become death, destroyer of worlds.” It’s Oppenheimer’s first night sleeping with Tatlock, the woman who would go on to be Oppy’s longtime mistress and confidant, and for many audience members, the scene’s gratuity served as yet another reminder of the director’s greatest flaw. Christopher Nolan’s portrayal of women has long been fraught with controversy. Of the few female characters Nolan has included in his heavily male-dominated films, they are often thinly written and commonly fridged for the plot (fridging refers to the phenomenon in art wherein women are killed or hurt in some way to advance the narrative progression of male characters). Indeed, in no less than six of Nolan’s 12 mainstream movies (including Oppenheimer), a female character’s death is used as a central motivation for the main protagonist.
However, while seemingly self-indulgent and flavored with misogyny, there’s another way to read Tatlock’s portrait. Nolan tells Oppenheimer in both black-and-white (historically objective) and color (subjective from Oppy’s viewpoint). To many viewers' surprise, the colored sections of the movie lambasted Oppenheimer as an arrogant, conviction-less man who realized too late the horrific consequences of his mindless ambitions. In theory, the sexualization of Tatlock fits with this portrait: Oppenheimer can only see the women around him as exotic objects meant to confirm his own greatness. But is this a fair way to view the film? And more importantly, might there be an oft-ignored critique of masculinity at the heart of Nolan’s other films too?
There is an argument to be made that Nolan’s movies are founded upon an intense indictment of men’s narrow-minded fantasies and their destructive impact on any women caught within the blast radius. With this logic, that Christopher Nolan’s portrayal of women is so weak is the point. Nolan’s breakthrough film, Memento, encapsulates this idea at its most basic level. Its protagonist, Lenny (Guy Pearce), is driven to avenge his dead wife by finding and killing the man who raped and murdered her. As a result of the attack, however, he suffers from an inability to create new memories and, therefore, no longer has any real grip on reality. At its root, the chaos that unfolds is an exaggerated condemnation of the tendency of men to externalize their internal pain. Lenny lies to himself about his own role in his wife’s death and uses her tragic end to justify an uncontrolled outpouring of violence against the world. In the absence of his humanity, all that remains are his masculine fantasies.
Memento is, of course, far from the only Nolan movie where the suffering of women provides men with an excuse to brutalize the world around them. In The Prestige, Alfred (Christian Bale) incidentally gets the wife of Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) killed in a magic trick gone wrong. Angier responds by instigating an increasingly violent rivalry between the two magicians, enabling both men’s egos to destroy everyone around them. Eventually, Alfred’s wife hangs herself as an indirect byproduct of the conflict. In The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart and Batman’s (Christian Bale) focus on fighting crime at all costs get their lover Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal) killed, causing the former to spiral into a murderous craze. Although less direct, in Inception, Cobb’s (Leonardo Dicaprio) ego convinces him he can implant a belief into his wife's brain–an idea that ultimately drives her to suicide. While not the responsibility of the main male protagonists, even Insomnia and Tenet focus on male villains moved to kill and torture women by their own narcissism.
But, that Nolan is fascinated by the darkness of men does not necessarily make him a feminist auter. It’s easy to give him too much benefit of the doubt or least to want to–ignoring the more overt repetitions and failings in his filmography. If one were to look at Nolan’s movies solely through the lens of a broadly meta parody of masculinity, then one could excuse everything. Nolan’s obsession with fridging is not an exercise in his dismissive objectification of women but rather a critique of an innate self-serving male fantasy. His poorly written female characters are just an intentionally pointed indictment of how men perceive the motivations of women around them.
Of course, Christopher Nolan is no Sophia Coppola. If he were, maybe it would be fair to conceptualize these films as a genius reckoning with the flaws of masculinity. Then again, the movies would also be very different. In more comprehensive critiques of masculinity, the female characters wouldn’t be as much of a side-thought as they often are in Nolan’s movies. They would, at least once in a while, be more than just props. The sexualization of Jean Tatlock may be a slyly subversive condemnation of Oppenheimer’s self-centered masculinity, but she is never an independent character. Never possessing depth or humanity.
Moreover, Nolan’s obsession with fridging women, driven by a stated terror over the thought of his wife dying, is not a maestro stroke of sophistication. Nolan is fascinated by the dangers of perversive fantasies, but his movies often embrace these fantasies at their core. Imagining the emotional burden the death of a loved one would force Nolan to endure provides a raw catharsis that holds no existential threat to him personally. Interstellar, an epic yet flawed film, proves that this is what’s really driving Nolan. The story’s protagonist is once again a character, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), motivated by the offscreen death of his wife some years before. Yet there’s no broader feminist critique driving the movie, meaning there’s no biting feminist parody undergirding Nolan’s movies; the set-up is merely a way of adding some cheap depth to the film’s hero.
So, what are we to make of Christopher Nolan’s portrayal of women and his films on the whole? As often as he is ribbed for the icy, detached tone of his films, Nolan's complicated filmography is deeply human at its core. He is a flawed person spilling his soul–the good and the bad–into his movies. Thus, his individual films have often been at once sharply critical of misogynistic fantasies and tacit endorsements of them when viewed in the aggregate. Nolan is still a man beholden to his worst impulses, and he has never matured enough to fully confront them–a frustrating fact given Nolan’s unmatched talent, vision, and global reach. He can’t help but be the man his movies condemn, making it all too easy to overlook that condemnation.
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