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The Nolan Brunette: An Examination of the Director's Most Commonly Used Trope

By Rob Payne | Think Pieces | July 30, 2012 |

By Rob Payne | Think Pieces | July 30, 2012 |

Before we begin, I would like everyone to know that I considered subtitling the piece, “Critical Analysis Is Thinking Too Hard.” TL;DR version: Christopher Nolan has a thing for strong-willed, victimized brunette women who most often function as the sacrificial saviors of his (white) male protagonists. If you’re still interested, please to enjoy following me down the rabbit hole.

Cinephiles have long been aware of the common trope in the late, great Alfred Hitchcock’s film oeuvre of casting blonde actresses in lead roles. For a certain genre of film, most notably noir (in which Hitchcock dabbled frequently), it was standard practice for the blonde to play the angelic damsel in distress and the brunette to play the manipulative femme fatale. On the surface, then, Hitchcock was merely following tradition, but he has such an extensive filmography with an exhaustive list of blonde leading ladies that the idea of The Hitchcock Blonde became cemented as a definitive aspect of his style. Film critics and college students have studied and written about the trope for nearly as long as the director made movies, and more often than not the implication is that Hitchcock was acting on his own sexual predilections. But that’s the easy, lazy answer, as some quick research into Alma Reville, the man’s one and only wife of 54 years, as well as his most trusted editor, reveals a humble, quiet, vaguely mousy but confident brunette who would never be mistaken for Grace Kelly or Ingrid Bergman, much less the characters they played in some of Hitchcock’s best movies.

The director commented on the idea himself in an interview with another legendary filmmaker, Francois Truffaut, revealing that he leaned toward casting blonde women not because of his own tastes, but because he was building off and attempting to deconstruct audience expectations. Traditionally, he said, brunettes in film were considered less trustworthy than blondes, so in order to get the audience (not to mention the male lead) to sympathize with his female characters, the shortcut was to make the women blonde — and then he was free to play around with expectations. This is achieved most notably and obviously in Psycho where the ostensible main character, Janet Leigh, doesn’t even survive the first act. (Spoiler alert.) In Hitchcock’s own words: “We were after the drawing-room type, the real ladies, who become whores once they’re in the bedroom… Because sex should not be advertised… Because without the element of surprise the scenes become meaningless.” In short, The Hitchcock Blonde was just one more way the director screwed with his audience. He was a master screwer.

Now, with the release of The Dark Knight Rises, it seems abundantly clear that the heir apparent of respectable genre filmmaking, Christopher Nolan, has created a new trope for his own movies, one that could be considered the direct opposite of, if not a direct reaction to, the one popularized by Hitchock. Nolan has yet to discuss the phenomenon nor does he seem to have been asked to expound on it in any material readily available online via Google searches, but for someone as meticulous about every aspect of his films as he seems, the possibility of unintended style doesn’t jive with reality. And that makes the topic worth at least a cursory examination. As noted, there is precious little on the Internet concerning this topic, and what is there is mostly in the form of quick asides of realization, so it’s possible, even likely, that rationales discussed below are pure drivel. But the movies themselves, from Memento all the way through his Batman cycle, offer enough revelation that The Nolan Brunette is absolutely real.

Unlike most of Nolan’s movies, let’s start at the beginning.

Following, 1998
Nolan’s first feature film is actually the only one he’s made that doesn’t feature a woman with brown hair, which makes it the exception that proves the Nolan Brunette rule. In fact, Lucy Russell’s character is never named and only referred to as “the woman we burgled” in the script, and simply credited as The Blonde. But that’s entirely the point, as Russell is playing the near-quintessential Hitchcock Blonde — reserved, cold demeanor, and quite a bit more desperate than she’s willing to let on — she just happens to be in a Chris Nolan movie instead. From her upswept ‘do prominently exposing her forehead and sleek fashion sense, the actress is a near perfect match for Bergman in Hitch’s Spellbound or Notorious. Yet, unlike the real Hitchcock Blonde, Russell’s character is both victim and manipulator, not a heroine, and her sex appeal is established right up front when one of the main characters calls her “a total babe” whilst rifling through her linen drawer. As well, when she reveals what she thinks is the master plan to Bill, the sad sack main character who really got himself into all this trouble, she doesn’t offer him an ounce of compassion. Perhaps he doesn’t deserve any, because Nolan heroes aren’t always heroic, but it’s as clear a departure from Hitchock’s method as any of her more obvious traits. At the very beginning of Nolan’s career, he displays a desire to play with conventions in much the way an ambitious, young film student often tries to achieve, by turning the surface tropes upside down without losing the original generic meaning. If you know what to look for, it’s obvious, and if you don’t, then the movie succeeds on its own complicated merits regardless. This is the opening salvo of Nolan’s burgeoning style, and it’s feasible that all of his successive female leads are meant to compare and contrast with his first. Without The Blonde, then, there could be no future Brunettes.

Memento, 2000
In his second project, Nolan is still primarily concerned with twisting his chosen genre (crime noir) in methods more arch than he pursues later in his career, when his style becomes more personal and less a commentary on film history. But for now, Carrie Anne-Moss’s Natalie, if that is her real name, is mostly a more fleshed out flip side of Russell’s The Blonde, most obviously in her more natural dark hair. If she’s reserved, it’s because she’s as scared and curious as Guy Pearce’s amnesiac Leonard Shelby. If she has a cold demeanor, it’s because she’s pretty sure this “memory guy” killed her boyfriend, and regardless of the late drug dealer’s chosen profession she doesn’t get bruised or beaten until after he’s dead. If she’s desperate, it’s because in a matter of days her life has become entirely upended. She’s a victim and a manipulator, as well, but unlike The Blonde, she evinces a semblance of a soul, of containing enough empathy for the man she’s using to feel something for what Leonard has been through and how she’s adding to his pain. Even when Natalie belittles him horribly under the conceit that Leonard won’t remember it anyway, she doesn’t seem to take pride in it and, after all, she does withdraw the spit festooned beer once she believes his condition. Her actions, more than any other character, are meant to challenge Nolan’s protagonist, to force him to see a truth he isn’t ready for and to guide him toward the hopeful end of his search.
Though they are only seen in flashbacks or confused memories, depending on how you process the narrative, the same is true for both Leonard’s wife and/or the wife of Sammy Jenkis — brunettes, the pair of them. Either woman (possibly) attempts to fix their husbands’ damaged mental state, to help them rediscover themselves and reality. Though they both seem to fail, since Leonard is still on his mission of bloody vengeance, the significance is that they did try to help out of such deep, abiding love for their mates that self sacrifice was a valid last resort tactic. This soulful nature, exemplified only by the women in this movie (all the male characters seem to feel no remorse for manipulating Leonard) is the start of the road that Nolan will eventually travel down with all of his leading ladies. The Nolan Brunette begins here, and she will eventually become a sort of savior figure for his male protagonists; something that Hitchcock’s blondes could rarely be accused of, positively or negatively. That two out of three women in Memento are mere facets of the main character’s mind will also play a major part in Nolan movies to come, and is perhaps a big reason they play such pivotal roles.

Insomina, 2002
While much of the movie tracks the mental state of Al Pacino’s fallen hero cop, Will Dormer, Hilary Swank’s detective Ellie Burr definitely isn’t a projection or hallucination. That role falls to murder victim Kay Connell, glimpsed in brief flashbacks from her killer’s perspective, as well as the deductive imagination of Dormer. As such, the movie splits The Nolan Brunette into two characters: the police officer and the presumed innocent. Maura Tierney’s innkeeper functions as a sort of unifying presence between the two halves as she floats in the background for most of the movie, offering guidance when called upon and not nearly as unblemished as she might appear. The murdered girl is akin to Leonard Shelby’s wife, in that she haunts the movie without ever really being in it, and she is quite obviously a victim. And, again, it’s the death of a brunette woman that sparks the story that unfolds, but throughout the course of the movie Kay Connell is revealed to be less angelic than everyone initially assumes, and much less so than Jorja Fox comes off. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that the teenage girl would have grown into a person similar to Carrie Anne Moss’s Natalie instead of the (perhaps imagined) woman Fox’s wife appeared to be.
Interestingly, as the only tangible female presence in this movie, Swank’s Alaskan cop stands in contrast to Moss’s barmaid, as she is neither victim nor manipulator and her sympathy for the male lead becomes actual empathy by the film’s end. Yet, like Natalie, Ellie is the one who challenges Dormer throughout the film during her investigation of the hero cop’s murdered partner, pushing the protagonist ever closer to his journey’s inevitable end. The biggest difference here is that her direction comes from questioning a proposed mentor once held in high esteem rather than a pitying deception to achieve her own goals. Like Leonard, Dormer’s mind is shrouded in darkness — heightened by the unending daylight — and he needs the compassion of a female counterpart to save him from himself. Ellie is willing to sacrifice her own ethics to protect the older detective’s legacy, which could precipitate a character arc leading to her becoming more like Natalie than she otherwise is or would be, but ultimately turns from that fate to acquiesce to Dormer’s final wish. So, like the wives of Memento, the success of Ellie’s sacrifice matters less than the attempt, and one can postulate she reflects the living version of those women. For Nolan, or at least his male leads, feeling loved or cared for in some fashion, even if it’s a lie, especially by a dark haired woman who deems one worthy of her sacrifice, is far more important than the actual act of saving. We’ll see this again in his non-Batman films, but that series takes a more literal tact in making those same points.

Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, 2005 and 2008
The dueling portrayals of Rachel Dawes, between Katie Holmes and Maggie Gyllenhaal, can and should be lumped together, because while the performances are markedly different the character is written consistently across both movies. Like Ellie in Insomnia, Rachel is a public servant, in the form of a prosectuor instead of a detective and in the world of law and order (or, at least “Law & Order”) they’re twin ivestigative professions. Both jobs immediately confer on the characters that sense of personal sacrifice for the greater good, which as we saw with Ellie translates easily to the (supposed) betterment of an individual. For Rachel this trait is front and center with her most dramatic scene in Begins, when she takes prodical Bruce Wayne (pre-Batman) to the shadiest parts of Gotham and lays out the consequences of the tyoe of selfishness her lifelong friend languishes in. Bruce leaves town and begins his seven year quest to becoming the Dark Knight immediately afte this exchange, meaning in Nolan’s world, Rachel Dawes might be more important to the creation of this superhero than his parents’ murders. Indeed, when Bruce reveals his identity to Rachel late in the movie, he repeats her line from earlier in the film, “It isn’t who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.” Not only does Rachel help create the Batman, she his conscience and guiding light regardless of the state of their relationship. It’s also important to note, that like Natalie and Ellie, Rachel is Bruce’s/Batman’s equal in terms of goals, status, and importance to the narrative. She does, unfortunately, become the damsel in distress more often than her Brunette predecessors, but that’s more or less part of the superhero genre so it can be forgiven and ignored for the purposes here. Though, her ultimate fate in The Dark Knight does twist that trope like Nolan twisted so many others before. In superhero movies, the love interest/female lead doesn’t die.
But, of course, in Nolan movies they must. After all, that’s the driving force for nearly all of his (white) (male) protagonists: the death of a loved one, specifically of the romantic persuasion. Yet, the loss of Rachel Dawes carries significantly more emotional weight than any of the other lost loves before and after. The audience knows her nearly as well as they know Bruce Wayne, and so his loss is more readily felt than merely understood as in the case of Leonard Shelby, or later with Borden and Cobb in their respective films. Again, the notion of victim and savior in the female form, here returning to a single character, manifests itself in Nolan’s film world. With three lead characters in a row, three minor ones, and four movies, the Nolan Brunette is quickly becoming a pattern and not mere coincidence.

The Prestige, 2006
There is indeed a Nolan Brunette in this movie, though it’s also true that the two other female cast members, both blondes, nearly overwhelm Rebecca Hall’s Sarah Borden, wife of Christian Bale’s Alfred. Piper Perabo plays the girlfriend of Hugh Jackman’s Angier, and, indeed, it is her death early in the movie that instigates most of what follows. There’s also Scarlett Johannson as Olivia, the magicians assistant that is literally traded between the two magic-obsessed protagonists throughout the course of the movie. Neither character really fits either the Hitchcock Blonde or the Nolan Brunette molds — Perabo isn’t exactly a victim when she drowns, as she chooses to allow Borden’s experimental knot to be died before she drowns; Johansson is smart enough to know when she’s being used and gets out before she gets hurts; and neither are more manipulative than the men in their lives. So, for the first time (so far, the only time) in a Nolan movie do we have female characters who don’t fit an easily digestible trope other than the superficial. However, Hall’s Sarah certainly distills the aspects, even the somewhat divergent ones, of Natalie, Ellie, and Rachel into a single persona: she is a victim (of her husband’s manipulations), she has almost infinite sympathy and compassion (despite her husband’s manipulations), she challenges her male counterpart frequently (and, clearly, they are equals in their relationship), and she sacrifices much of her own happiness for the sake of the one she loves. Sarah’s suicide near the end recalls the ambiguity of Memento and are echoed in the even larger ambiguities of Inception. Her death sets off Borden’s actions leading directly to the film’s climax, which structurally circles all the way back to the beginning, and thus like those two earlier films alters the meaning of the entire story on repeated viewings. The Nolan Brunette might be more convoluted here than in any of the director’s other movies, but she is still present and abundantly important to understanding the narrative.

Inception, 2010
The more malevolent manipulation that marked the first appearance of the Nolan Brunette in Memento returns here in the form of Marion Cotillard’s Mal. We’ll get to her, but between Natalie and Mal, Nolan’s character type offered the more sympathetic or gentle guidance that Leonard’s/Sammy Jenkis’s wife exhibited — from Ellie Burr to Rachel Dawes and Sarah Borden. That aspect of the Brunette appears in the form of Ellen Page’s Ariadne, whose moniker is the most pointed in all of the director’s films considering her namesake’s role in guiding Theseus through the Minotaur’s labyrinth. (With Mal being a close second.) She is clearly sympathetic to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb and she consistently challenges him to make better or less selfish choices. By the end, Ariadne seems to succeed as Cobb finally appears to move on from his wife’s supposed suicide and save their employer from permanent brain damage. If you look closely enough, there’s also the possibility that Ariadne could be an idea inceptioned into Cobb’s mind by an outside source — a real, not-dead Mal, perhaps?
Admittedly, Mal being alive and watching over her comatose husband’s body might be a stretch, but regardless the character’s destructive tendencies can easily be interpreted as nobly striving to save Cobb’s life. If every single frame of film is Cobb’s never ending dream then that means his apparently deceased wife, his antagonistic subconscious, merely wants him to wake up to the real world. That’s exactly the wife’s plight in the Sammy Jenkis story and symbolically the same as Ellie trying to help Will Dormer through his insomnia. Mal’s boldest attempt is her suicide, an end meant to be as powerful a motivator as, remember, Borden’s spouse’s demise in The Prestige, but if she’s right then it’s not at all selfish. On the other hand, if Cobb really does reunite with his children after his “one last job,” that only means that Mal’s manipulations were tragic, not necessarily bad, or well, malevolent. It also means she was a victim. Mal seems to offer the ideal version of Nolan’s Brunettes, as her persona is derived entirely from Cobb’s mind, whether the top spins forever or not, and Cobb is essentially a stand in for Christopher Nolan himself. What is Cobb’s job other than the director of dreams? He hires experts to perform the labor intensive elements he can’t do on his own, from make-up to set design to musical score to the studio drug dealer, while focusing all the talents together to construct a singular work of art. Which means when Cobb utters these words to Mal as limbo falls apart around them…

“I can’t imagine you with all your complexity, all your perfection, all your imperfection. Look at you. You are just a shade of my real wife. You’re the best I can do; but I’m sorry, you are just not good enough.”

…it’s likely the most personal statement Nolan has ever made in one of his movies, and could almost be read as speaking directly to his own wife, Emma Thomas. That’s her in the header picture, if you weren’t sure. She’s also Nolan’s longtime producing partner, having worked on every one of his projects. Arguably, she is the first and last Nolan Brunette in the filmmaker’s heart. Cobb’s speech might have indicated that Nolan recognized his own trope, realized that his genre referencing had mutated into its own thing, and commented on it through his fictional avatar, promising to never return to it again. But then how does that account for the final chapter in his Batman trilogy?

The Dark Knight Rises, 2012
There’s a better than good chance that anyone reading this far into this article has already seen the movie, but potential spoilers will still be avoided. It also isn’t readily available for proper dissection, and first impressions can always change over time. With that out of the way, the twin (not literally) characters of Selina Kyle and Miranda Tate both retain elements of the Nolan Brunette that might have been jettisoned following Inception. Both women are victims in different ways, both women challenge Bruce Wayne and Batman throughout the proceedings, both women have the potential to manipulate events to their own ends, both seem to offer sympathy and guidance to the main character, whom they are both equals to in each of his dual personae, and both are willing to make sacrifices for the people they truly care about. If that sounds vague, the specifics don’t add any veracity, but readers who have seen the movie ought to recognize those isolated moments in the film. Suffice to say, the Nolan Brunette continues, perhaps unstoppable at this point in the director’s career.

Maybe all these elements could be be present in a great many characters throughout a varied assortment of stories in as many genres on as much media by as diverse a group of artists as possible. Why not? But for so many female characters in a single creator’s canon to exhibit all of them, with only one — the first — failing to meet the requirements is beyond coincidence. There’s no judgement to be made other than that the trope exists, the rest is aesthetics. There’s only to ponder why, because without any direct commentary by the director the reason for the Nolan Brunette is anyone’s guess. If it’s accidental, is that necessarily “bad” for it’s redundancy or can it still be the pure expression of a creative human mind? If it’s purposeful, is that necessarily “good” for it’s consistency and thoroughness or is it still redundant? The trope certainly doesn’t negate or rectify any of the complaints that Christopher Nolan might have a “woman problem” in his films and, actually, may strengthen those criticisms.

Other than to once again note that Nolan’s wife and producer, Emma Thomas, is also a brunette, I have no answers. Quite often, that’s how I feel after watching any Nolan film for the first, second, or thirteenth time, but I find them endlessly engaging, nonetheless. The same is true now for this textual analysis. Even if nobody ever needs to delve this deeply into the shallow end, it’s interesting to think about.

Rob Payne also writes the indie comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter, tumbls on the Tumblr, and his wares can be purchased here. He bets you’ll never look at Nolan’s upcoming films the same way again.

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