Christopher Nolan is the subject of much debate in today’s highly industrialised world of cinema, having recently announced his intention of working on a new film about the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer. The filmmaker’s fans often claim that he is the most important director working today, citing the examples of big-budget projects like The Dark Knight trilogy and standing by the debacle that was Tenet.
For many of these same fans, Nolan’s debut feature Following is of little interest because it does not share the same brand of ‘spectacle’ that they have come to associate with Nolan’s later works. In their defence, they are right. Following neither has the ambitious, cosmic visions of the space-time fabric like Interstellar nor the grandiose of Inception’s investigations. However, it does have something that is diminishing in Nolan’s later works – artistic authenticity.
Shot on a relatively microscopic budget of $6,000, Following is an inherently paradoxical work because it is a pre-cursor to Nolan’s subsequent films and, in many ways, the apotheosis of his creative flair. Operating in a French New Wave aesthetic framework, Nolan wears his influences on his sleeve and attempts to construct a neo-noir thriller that tries to explore the perversions induced by modernity.
Following tells the story of Bill – an aspiring writer (played by Jeremy Theobald) whose hobby is to follow people as they go about their day, learning more about them in the process. The idea of a disillusioned, unemployed intellectual wandering through the labyrinths of a decadent city immediately invokes the memory of Bernard Queysanne’s 1974 masterpiece The Man Who Sleeps but Nolan is not interested in philosophical ruminations.
Instead, he builds a fascinating thriller that chronicles the rapid decline in Bill’s fortunes after he runs into Cobb (Alex Haw). If that name seems familiar, that’s because it is. Nolan used the same name for Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Inception, an enigmatic thief who invades people’s dreams and exposes their darkest secrets. In Bill’s case, those secrets are the dangerous desires that he had papered over with posters of Batman, The Shining and Mark Rothko.
While Haw’s character does not have the technology to attack people’s dreams, he helps bring out the hidden perversions embedded in Bill’s mind by taking his habit of following people to its logical conclusion – breaking into people’s homes and obsessing over their private belongings. All of it turns to be an elaborate attempt to get Cobb out of a criminal case involving the murder of an old woman, a modern contextualisation of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
“It was truly a no-budget effort, and I’d written the script to accommodate that. The non-linear chronology helped us keep continuity in an organic way,” Nolan explained. “When you have absolutely no money and absolutely no resources, [trying] to achieve colour cinematography is extremely difficult. [With black and white,] it’s much more possible to get some kind of level of style to the thing—quickly and easily throwing in some lights and shadow and going with that.”
The most interesting element of Following, much more than its rudimentarily sketched characters, is its narrative style. Nolan really took Jean-Luc Godard’s maxim of “a story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order” to heart, presenting the audience with vignettes which slowly fit together like puzzle pieces in our minds as we recognise an object from a particular scene in another or the ever-changing appearances of the protagonist.
Retroactively strung together through the law of causality, Following is a beautifully fragmented Kafkaesque tale about a lost, young man who embraces a newly forged identity only to find that his world has completely collapsed all around himself. To make matters worse, the man Bill has become is only a counterfeit version of the mysterious murderer who casually disappears after destabilising his sense of self.