I’m Leonard Shelby – Analysis of Polaroid, Narration and Leonard in Memento

A polaroid of Dodd, one of Leonard's victims
A polaroid of Dodd, one of Leonard’s victims

The use of Polaroid photographs and multiple plot lines in Memento function as a representation of Leonard’s character. The story itself follows two different plot lines: one that is presented in color (the main plot line), and another that is presented in monochrome (sub-plot line). The main plot follows a sequence that is non-linear and actually loops the story by starting where it ends and vice-versa, which is the plot sequence of the entire film in itself. The subplot follows a chronological sequence, contrasting with the main plot. By having two different plots, Memento not only succeeds in resembling Leonard’s character, but also reinforces the importance of the relationship between the Polaroid photographs and the narration sequence.

The first and most prominent scene consisting the Polaroid photographs is the opening scene. This scene is in reverse motion, resembling the narration sequence of the main plot line. In its original format, Leonard is shaking the photograph in order for the photograph to develop. However, edited into reverse, he is shaking the photograph, causing it to lose its color instead of gaining, representing his memory. This is not only an indirect introduction to Leonard’s disability but also a way of introducing the narrative style. By starting where the scene is meant to end, in actual time, the scene by far succeeds in summarizing the narrative style and Leonard’s memory, which is also found in the effect in the Polaroid photograph in that same scene. So, by making the opening scene reverse in a narrative and editing aspect, Leonard’s life, which is developed through fragmented and disordered events, is mirrored. The reverse motion continues until the very first monochromatic scene.

Throughout the film, the difference between now and then is touched upon constantly, especially through dialogue. There seems to be a sense of disparity through time and the fact that the concept of past and present are constantly being mentioned creates a dimension between Leonard, who is the only one that lives in a distorted timeline, and the other characters. The constant mention of time throughout the film captures the narration style and plot order. Memento follows a reversed version of cause and effect narration; the audience see the effect first then the cause. By doing this, it emerges the complete story in the way Leonard understands it: disorderly and fractured. We see this concept through the dialogues between the other characters and Leonard. The first time we are faced with the clash between past and present is in the beginning, just before Leonard kills Teddy. Teddy says to Leonard:

“You don’t know who you are.”

“I’m Leonard Shelby, I’m from San Francisco.”

“That’s who you were, that’s not what you’ve become.”

During the second monochrome scene, intra-diegetic narration is implemented for Leonard’s thoughts. Here, Leonard is rebelling against what Teddy said earlier on by narrating: “I mean you know who you are and you know kind of all about yourself. But just for day-to-day stuff, notes are really useful.” Later, Burt, the desk clerk at Discount Inn, admits to Leonard that he has been booked into two different rooms. He says, “This was your room, but now you’re in room 304.” So, seeing the contrast between Leonard and the other characters’ thoughts about past and present, it could be said that Leonard believes that what was will still forever be, Leonard was and still is Leonard Shelby from San Francisco. However, the others believe in change and that what was true does not necessarily mean it still is. This claim can be supported by the excessive use of the Polaroid photos by Leonard.

A polaroid of Teddy, an important turning point in the narrative
A polaroid of Teddy, an important turning point in the narrative

The film reveals to us how and when Leonard took specific photos. In essence, the photographs are an evidence of a time that once existed but is now forever gone. But, due to Leonard’s disability, they will always be new and true every fifteen minutes (approximate time of how long it takes for Leonard to lose his new memories). So, in a way, they are timeless to him; there is no difference between the past and present, which we see twice when he questions how long it has been since he was in the hotel and since he’s been looking for John. G. The plot sequence is also supporting evidence of the past versus present idea.

As mentioned previously, the main plot is not in chronological order whilst the sub-plot (the monochromatic scenes) is in chronological order. So, by creating two different plots that develop in opposite timescales, Christopher Nolan creates another resemblance of Leonard’s character. The narrative structure is one that is formed of several different snippets of Leonard’s process of finding and killing John G. However, it is not put in order, rather it is interrupted by the sub-plot.

When the main plot is presented, the effect is shown before the cause, reflecting Leonard’s life. Leonard describes his disability as feeling like he just woke up. So, he sees the effect of the previous actions, but he does not remember those said actions, an effect that the narration structure creates for the audience as well. He knows what he is doing in the present but not what he just did. So, like the photographs, the narrative structure also represents Leonard’s character and disability. During the sub-plot, Leonard is shown talking to an unknown cop through a telephone. The majority of what they were talking about was Sammy Jankins, a man who experienced the same disability that Leonard did.

Leonard would use Sammy’s story as a way to explain his own disability. Until the very end, it was made to believe that Sammy was a different person than Leonard. Throughout the main plot, Leonard never remembers Sammy or at least never explains him. However, during the subplot, he explains the whole story to the cop. That being said, one could assume that Leonard knew Sammy before the incident. Yet, by the end it was made to seem that the two were interlinked not only because Leonard was working with Sammy, but as if they were the same person or that Leonard merged his memories of his last moments with his wife with Sammy’s story, meaning that Leonard was able to forget the things he’d intentionally want to, which is a reoccurring idea throughout the film.

This can be seen at the very end when Leonard purposely allows himself to forget what Teddy told him in order to have a purpose in life. However, this purpose is one that keeps coming back, it moves in a cycle as suggested by Teddy at the end. Teddy mentioned that Leonard has killed several other ‘John G.’s before in order to achieve his purpose: to gain revenge over his wife’s death. Yet, Leonard continues to keep himself from remembering. So, like the narration of the film, which keeps repeating and completing itself in circles, Leonard repeats his villainous acts.

Not only does Leonard use vengeance as an excuse to kill but he also uses it to forget that it was actually him who caused his wife’s death. This conclusion was found when Leonard realizes that his wife survived the attack and that it was his wife who had diabetes, not Sammy’s (Sammy didn’t even have a wife). Also, Leonard lead himself into believing that there were two men who were attacking his wife, when in reality there was only one – the one who he killed. So, by making himself believe that there was another man, he dedicated his life to killing that man even though there really wasn’t another one. Nonetheless, Sammy was a parallel to Leonard. Even though Sammy was what Leonard saw as a failure in terms of coping with his disability, Leonard based his ‘system’ on what he learnt about Sammy. That being said, Leonard was indeed in control of what he could remember. Leonard made himself remember himself as Sammy Jankins so that he wouldn’t have to remember him indirectly killing his wife. Leonard made himself believe that Sammy was incapable of remembering simple things as trivial as taking notes so that he could use Sammy as a bad example, even though he was Sammy himself. So, the subplot functioned as a window to Leonard’s true colors whilst the main plot showed us limited information about Leonard as an individual. By doing that, it creates a contrast between the two plot lines but then by the very end it concludes by linking the two together to fill in the gaps of the narration.

Nolan’s Memento tied the multiple plots together through Leonard’s character, which was indeed mirrored by the narrative structure of the film and the essence of the Polaroid snapshots. By creating importance of the Polaroid snapshots, multiple conflicting plot lines, and a complete parallel to Leonard’s character (Sammy), Leonard’s role and the narration structure were really emphasized. Leonard’s role as the main character is very different from the rest of the characters, which was seen through the idea of past versus present, found in the narration structure and Polaroid shots. So, every aspect of the film mentioned above work together to create a chaotic and layered effect to the film as well as simultaneously construct Leonard, who is a very complex character. As Burt said, “That must suck. It’s all backwards.”

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  1. Well written, and great insights into the mechanics of the movie.
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Roberge

    This is a good post. A whole book could be written about the film – there are a great many texts on it. His sense of touch is one that he feels he can rely on. Solid objects carry more certainty than remembered ones, voices or interpretations. While my own interests are in relation to the Polaroid photograph, I had not really thought before about the importance of touch in relation to other objects within the film, the importance that are also given.

  3. S-Dunlap

    This is one of my favorite movies. We used to have a Polaroid camera in our family, and the most exciting part was, without a doubt, watching it develop. It was always so magical seeing the pictures gradually seeping into life.

  4. Giovanni Insignares

    I still believe this is Christopher Nolan’s best film. Its emotional and incredibly well crafted. Great job on this article. The polaroids are such an important part of the story besides merely showing the things Leonard chooses to see, and you have done great at analyzing it all.

  5. Alla Pugh

    Awesome classic. Just when you think you might have sussed out how things happen, it suddenly throws you another twist to scupper what you thought was a brilliant piece of detective work by yourself.

  6. Some extremely valid points! I appreciate you writing this write-up and the rest of the site is also really good.

  7. It would be very hard for a movie to live up to such a great story as this, but this instant classic does the job.

  8. A genuinely surprising film, with fantastic performances by all.

  9. Very indie, but goes to show if you have a powerful script and director like Christopher Nolan you can make anything work.

  10. Amena Banu

    I saw an interview in which Christopher Nolan said that he thought if the film’s main plot as linear – just in reverse, which I think is a really interesting point.

  11. The film’s narrative through its structure had me glued to the screen; my brain couldn’t switch off for the film takes one through an experience the same as that Pearce Guy’s.

  12. Hui Luster

    I keep reading analyses of this film. The whole film feels massively original and very well made.

  13. Nolan’s movie is quite incredible and original. It’s so complicated and kind of left so open that it felt so much like a novel. A book could be written about Memento. This is an interesting analysis.

  14. Chris Nolan is a genius film maker in every sense.

  15. Liz Kellam

    Still one of my favorite films. It kind of goes against the saying of “a picture is worth a thousand words”.

  16. Jamie Tracy

    As an avid Polaroid user for my whole life I fell in love with this movie instantly. I loved the obsessive need to use the Polaroid and that he slung it over his shoulder like a rifle.

    Great article.

  17. Thigpen

    A breath taking piece of cinema in my opinion and this should definitely be watched by everyone.

  18. Seth Childers

    Christopher Nolan has made a lot of great, intellectual movies, but Memento is easily one of his best films. I think the structure of the film is brilliant – probably one of the most unique design choices to a mystery movie that I have seen. I do not think I have seen a film as complex as this in a long while (Inception is complex too, but I think Memento is still far more elaborate).

    Great writing!

  19. By far Memento’s greatest strength–the deconstruction of linearity. And while I do agree with you, that this is indicative of Leonard’s character, I think it also has import on a larger scale as well. Without time, what can we say is real or not? What is imagined, remembered, mis-recalled? Perhaps Nolan is trying to show how the linearity of time is a sort of necessary illusion. But if that is so, than is everything an illusion? Probably not. but the film–and all art, really, always is. These things, films, poems, paintings. They are beautiful tricks. And they are important.

  20. Great article! It does a great job of addressing the intricate pieces that weave the story of this film together. I feel like each Polaroid seen in the film adds to the surprise and suspense that is continual throughout the film and culminates with the ending.

  21. Commendable work on connecting the fractured nature of Leonard Shelby with the manifested instances of his own aphasia. It was stimulating to watch the juxtaposition of permanence and selected absence of Memento being strung together in your article.

  22. alustick

    For some reason I was not able to connect with Memento to level of most people, breaking down the writing, however, helped.

  23. JLaurenceCohen

    One of my favorite movies.

    Leonard does actually mention Sammy to Teddy in the “main plot.” Teddy scoffs because he has heard the story so many times from Leonard, although this is not clear until the end.

  24. Rebecca

    Hey, thank you for sharing. I’m writing an assignment on the movie at the moment 🙂

    Actually, there was another man. The police just didn’t believe Leonard, because the man left no traces of himself. Else it wouldn’t make any sense if it was the dead man who had hit Leonard. Teddy also says so in the movie.

    “I was the cop assigned to your wife’s death. I believed you, I thought you deserved the chance for revenge. I helped you find the other guy who was in your bathroom that night. The guy who cracked your skull and fucked your wife. We found him and you killed him.”

    “A couple of junkies, too strung out to realize that your wife didn’t live alone. When you killed him, I’ve never seen you so happy – I was convinced you’d remember.”

  25. Thanks so much for this post! I was watching this movie the other day for the first time after being suggested by my friend. Indeed, it is an awesome movie! I developed the same understanding as yours, of what is happening to Leonard, but I wasn’t sure if my interpretation was correct. Now that you have explained it, I’m glad that we share the same thoughts. 🙂

  26. If there wasn’t a second man in the bathroom, how did Leonard lose his memory?

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