Inception – A Surrealist Tale About Lost Love

Curator's Note

He stole the idea from my subconscious.’ Just the sort of proposition you might hear from a character from Inception. But apparently they were really uttered (see Shivprasad 2013). Salvador Dali, legendary surrealist, shouted them out them allegedly in a fury midway through a 1936 premiere of Joseph Cornell’s experimental film Rose Hobart. Dali sincerely believed that he had conceived the whole of Rose Hobart down to the last detail - all in his head - but never committed it to script or discussed it with anyone; and that Cornell invaded his subconscious and stole the idea.  I mention this at the beginning of this text about Inception (2010) as there are many links between the surrealist movement and Christopher Nolan’s film, this being perhaps the most flippant one.

In the video essay we focus on the similarities between Inception (2010) and the surrealist classic Un Chien Andalou (1929) by Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel. In particular, it was the filmic language of unattainable desire, love and loss that we wanted to explore in visual terms[1]Inception has been one of the most successful movies of the last ten years.  The film was a great commercial success but it has had a mixed critical reception. Mark Fisher in Film Quarterly (2011, n. 64. Vol.3), for example, rightly accused it of being, at least in part, a capitalist ‘commodification of the psyche’, both artistically and ideologically.

The above critique notwithstanding, it is worth taking a look Nolan’s work form a psychoanalytical perspective. To my mind, the film fulfils exactly André Breton’s demands for surrealism as described in Manifestoes of Surrealism in 1924, a document which was the philosophical basis for Un Chien Andalou, arguably the first surrealist film. Surrealism in its turn was of course profoundly influenced by psychoanalysis and Sigmund Freud's work on dreams (The Interpretation of Dreams, 1901) in which the latter famously suggested that dreams are the ‘royal road to the unconscious’. In his Manifestoes of Surrealism, Breton wanted to take the notion of the unconscious out of the pathological: the dream for him was not just a way into discovering a subject’s dysfunctions – rather, he saw the dream world as a way of being oneself, without ties to the ordinary and the mundane of culture and society, even in 1924.  Breton in his text despairs over the victory of the rational in Western culture, which he saw as destroying all creativity:

The absolute rationalism that is still in vogue allows us to consider only facts relating directly to our experience. But then, because of the insistence on rationality and logic, the real experience of what it means to be alive, escapes us. (…) It paces back and forth in a cage from which it is more and more difficult to make it emerge (10).

Luckily, he says, because of the discoveries of Sigmund Freud of the unconscious, ‘the imagination is perhaps on the point of reasserting itself, of reclaiming its rights’ (10).  Breton in particular is fascinated by the dream world. He is delighted to point out that ‘Freud very rightly brought his critical faculties to bear upon a dream.  It is, in fact, inadmissible that this considerable portion of psychic activity (…) has still today been so grossly neglected.  I have always been amazed at the way an ordinary observer lends so much more credence and attaches so much more importance to waking events than to those occurring in dreams’ (11), which, he points out, are often far more empowering than the waking life. ‘The mind of the man who dreams is fully satisfied by what happens to him.  The agonising question of possibility is no longer pertinent.  Kill, fly faster, love to your heart’s content (16).  Breton calls this sense of power that one has in dreams the irrational, the unexplained, the magical, ‘the marvelous’, and claims that it offers a key to unlock what really matters in one’s existence: ‘…the attraction of the unusual, chance, the things extravagant are all devices which we can always call upon without fear or deception’ (16).  He adds triumphantly: ‘surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought’ (26, my emphasis).  It is important to recall Breton’s words in connection with Nolan’s film, as it becomes very clear how much it influenced Nolan’s work.

Many assumptions and statements voiced in Inception take for granted psychoanalytically based perception of the world without necessarily acknowledging its origins.  It is worth bearing in mind that since the film’s first screening in 2010 there have been a couple of collections of essays written by philosophers (for example, Inception and Philosophy: Because It's Never Just a Dream (2011) edited by David Kyle Johnson, John Wiley  & Sons), which disavow the most basic premise of the whole movie — namely that the unconscious exists and that our rational being cannot control or know everything about the world and about who we are[2]. Despite the film’s annoying use of the word ‘subconscious’ (instead of ‘unconscious’), the film’s structure and presentation is a profoundly complex and psychoanalytically informed text as to the unknowability of the world we live in.  It is also a serious reflection on the power of love and the untameable nature of the unconscious, despite our efforts to disavow it or somehow control it.  It is these tropes that we were interested in exploring in our video essay. 

We found striking visual and conceptual similarities between Inception and Un Chien Andalou: the sense of an individual being lost in the city, the sense of movement both in terms of the camera work but also the characters physically being shown running in the film, a sense of the repression or suppression of (sexual) desire as well as some gender confusion.  We found the imagery of the ocean and the beach, the shore and the waves, present in both films in a surprising way.  The notion of a fantasy of togetherness, which in Inception can be found only in the dream, in some way echoes the final scenes of Un Chien Andalou.  The films remind us that psychoanalysts had a lot of trouble with female desire and surrealists were obsessed with it, so we added some images by Man Ray and other surrealists that underscore this sense of longing, desire, loss and the impossibility of love.

Of course, Un Chien Andalou is a short non-narrative film whilst Inception is a full-blown Hollywood movie, but the links between the former and the latter are striking nonetheless.  About the dream experience Cobb repeats many times, ‘once you have experienced this you can never go back to ordinary reality’.  The uncontrolled presence of Mal in his dreams, symbolising Cobb’s profound mourning for his wife, verging on melancholia (as in Freud’s famous paper on the subject and its re-workings by Torok and Abraham) echoes these ideas as Cobb literally builds a crypt in his unconscious in which he holds onto Mal.  The cloud of nostalgia that is pervasive in the film, and that Fisher sees as the sign of resignation and passivity of society under capitalism, can be read instead more obviously perhaps as a longing for love that, once lost, can never be quite re-gained.


Abraham. T & Torok. M (1969) The Shell and the Kernel: Renewals of Psychoanalysis. Trans. Nicholas T. Rand. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Breton.A ([1924] 2000) Manifestoes of Surrealism. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

Freud, S. (1901) The Psychopathology of Everyday Life: Forgetting, Slips of the Tongue, Bungled Actions, Superstitions and Errors in Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud. Volume VI. Trans. by J. Strachey. London: Hogarth Press & the Institute of Psychoanalysis, pp.1-291.

Fisher. M. (2011)  'The Lost Unconscious: Delusions and Dreams in Inception', Film Quarterly Vol. 64 No. 3, Spring 2011; (pp. 37-45) DOI10.1525/FQ.2011.64.3.37

(Shivprasad’s blog accessed last on 17th March 2017)                                                                                     

[1] I say ‘we’ as I worked on the essay with a film editor Anna Dobrowodzka.

[2] Annoying, throughout the film ‘the unconscious’ is referred to as ‘sub-conscious’, as the latter functions as that in the popular language and consciousness. It also corresponds perhaps to Freud’s early work.