Ego, Love and the Self in Lisa Joy’s Reminiscence (2021)

While science fiction often offers a detached look on mostly sociocultural or historical aspects of human civilization, near-future-scenarios like the Cyberpunk-genre seem to have a natural affinity to focus on existential aspects of the human condition.

Lisa Joy’s Reminiscence is a romantic thriller set in just such a near future neo-noir scenario. It is very closely related to the Cyberpunk-genre, but offers an original atmosphere and a unique perspective on the conditio humana.

After a global warming had caused sea levels to rise, and border wars had broken out, Miami has become a half-sunken city. Since the temperature during daylight is too high, people began to shift their lives into the cooler night time. In a depressed society where “there wasn’t much to look forward to, nostalgia became a way of life.” People started turning towards their own past by means of a technology that allows to re-experience personal memories.

The protagonist of the story, war veteran Nick Bannister (played by Hugh Jackman), runs a shop where his customers pay to relive blissful moments of their past. Because of his soft spot for broken people, he frequently allows his services to friends who cannot afford to pay for it. Yet, he is well aware of the dangers of returning to the past: “Memories have a voracious appetite. If you’re not careful, they consume you.”

The story of Reminiscence takes its course as one day, just after closing, a woman called Mae (played by Rebecca Ferguson) enters Nick’s shop. She claims she’s lost her keys and needs help to remember where she misplaced them. Nick is immediately attracted by her looks, but also by her visible brokenness. The next day, looking her up to bring her back her earrings she forgot in Nick’s shop, they begin an intense love-affair. Mae opens up emotionally and shares intimate details of her troubled childhood with Nick, who wants to bring her into a better, happy life. Until, one day, Mae mysteriously disappears without a trace. In pain about the inexplicable loss, Nick starts digging into Mae’s past in order to find clues as to where she might have gone.

This is the initial setup to this poetic thriller. A closer look at the story reveals that at its core we find the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, which is mentioned when Nick narrates it to Mae during their relationship. Reminiscence is essentially the story of Orpheus and Eurydice retold and reinterpreted in a futuristic setting.

Just as Orpheus loses his beloved Eurydice and goes into Hades to implore Thanatos to give her back, Nick’s search for Mae leads him into the underworld – not the real one, but the criminal underworld, where Mae has a past. The Leitmotif shared in both stories is that of “looking back”. But it has respectively different meanings. In the original myth, Hades warns Orpheus that, on his way upwards with Eurydice, he would lose her if he ever looked back to her. Eventually, out of insecurity whether she was still following him or not, Orpheus looks back to Eurydice and loses her for good. While he tries to grasp her and she tries to grasp him, Orpheus “clutched at nothing but the receding air”.  This “receding air” is where Reminiscence receives its title from: A reminiscence is like the breeze of a fleeting memory. It is the shade of the disappearing Eurydice in Orpheus’ eye, and Nick’s inerasable memory in of Mae in his own mind.

In Reminiscence, looking back is more than just Nick’s single action. It is the premise of the whole setting. It is the replacement behaviour for people who adapted to their present unhappiness, to find joy in a present where there is none. In this setting, looking back has become the fundamental attitude of a society that lives in a miserable present. The story of Nick and May has a second and a third step to this. For in this backwards looking society it is Nick who makes these reminiscences possible to his clients. And he is the one who goes back into his and her memories to find out who Mae really is. His driving impulse is that he actually found joy in the present through his intense relationship with Mae. And yet, although he had found joy in the present, it escaped him for reasons he cannot fathom. This is why he needs to look back to understand what actually happened, and to find out which hints he didn’t notice.

The symbolism of the desert and the sea

In Reminiscence, nostalgia has become the main trait of a society that is unable to find joy in the present. This is the case because the rising of the heat and the following rise of the waters made the present miserable. There is a dense and almost encrypted symbolism in this – and as profound as it is, the only reproach one could make to Lisa Joy is that the story fails to make it visible enough, hence depriving itself of the opportunity to shine in its own full light.

Symbolically, water has always been associated with Chaos. That’s not new. But psychologically speaking, Chaos corresponds to the older parts of our brain – particularly the limbic system. We have this old part of our brain that is home to our fears, anger and all our other dark emotions. It is the seat of our Shadow. His only employee and best friend, Watts (played by Thandiwe Newton), arguing with him that Nick’s charities allow them to financially merely keep their heads above water, only shows how even Nick is prone to negativity. Nick’s brokenness is also revealed through his limping leg.

Meanwhile, heat is symbolically charged with connotations of punishment for sins (e.g. droughts) or of a place of sin and temptation (the desert). As such, heat is a place of pain.

Merging these two aspects, Reminiscence’s setting of rising waters as a consequence of global warming reflects a psychological symbolism of how the human psyche recedes into its limbic parts as a consequence of pain – be it purely caused externally or self-inflicted through individual shortcomings (the Hebrew root for “to sin” means “to miss a mark”). Anxiety, stress and feeling unfulfilled drive a person into survival mode – a state of being in which we operate on our lower and short-sighted instincts. And this older part of the brain is in perpetual conflict with our younger and more progressive part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is that part of our brain which helps us override present discomfort for the sake of finding a long-term solution in the vast sea of possibilities. (This is why being in survival mode kills our creativity.) It is the seat of the very faith that makes us bargain with the future, although we have no certainty about what is going to happen.

After Nick finds out not only about Mae’s criminal history, but also that she deliberately seduced him only to gain access to the recordings in his vault, he is devastated. In a time of cultural desperation where the majority of people has given up on their dreams and started recurring to past memories to make life bearable, he had found the rare and ultimate happiness in his love with Mae. He cannot believe (or accept) that all the intimacy and closeness they shared was only a lie and manipulation. Thus, his search for Mae is not only for the sake of being with her again – it is also the attempt to make sense of himself and his life experience. As psychologist Jordan Peterson points out in his lectures, betrayal causes a symbolic death of a person’s Ego, because it not only makes the person question her new present, but also the whole past that lead to the present. We rely upon our past, partly deriving our values from it, and use this past to predict our future from it. If someone close to us deceives us, and turns out to be somebody else than we thought, what are we to make of our whole past? Our whole world-view collapses, Peterson explains, because nothing seems to be reliable anymore, now that we’re becoming aware that everything we believed to be true turned out to be false.

Thus, Nick does not only question who she really was, but he also – necessarily – starts to question himself and his perception of reality. Why did the intensity with Mae feel so real, if it was only a lie? How did he not become aware of the lying? Who is the real woman behind the Mae he knew?

Orpheus turning

As Nick finds out later, Mae came back to his shop after she had saved the child which Cyrus Boothe, the corrupt cop who blackmailed her into stealing the recordings from Nick, was charged to kill. But because Nick was busy replaying Mae’s memories he didn’t manage to open the door in time before Boothe intercepted Mae and took her away. Just like Orpheus lost Eurydice by looking back at her instead of going on, Nick loses Mae by looking back into her memories instead of moving on with his life. Had he not been rewatching her memories, but instead present in his life, he would have been able to open the door for Mae in time and confront Boothe.

Instead, Nick loses Mae. But towards the end of the story he catches up with Boothe and taps into his memory to find out the whole truth about her. He learns that Mae didn’t help Boothe kill the child, but that she turned against him and saved the boy, hiding him in a place only Nick knows about.

Digging into Boothe’s memory, Nick watches the scene when Boothe saw Mae for the last time. He sees how Boothe drugged Mae with the futuristic drug Baca to make her confess where she hid the boy. But instead, she starts talking to Boothe (who is visibly confused), while her words are actually addressing Nick. Knowing that Nick will search for her, and trusting that he will succeed in chasing Boothe down, she hereby plants into Boothe’s memory her last words to Nick, confessing him her love and revealing in a way that only Nick can understand where she has hidden the boy.

It’s in this monologue, heartbreakingly beautifully recited by Rebecca Ferguson, that Mae speaks the most important passage of the whole movie:

People like us don’t fall in love.

We plummet to places deep and dark.

But love? Love is the thing we climb to.

Rung after rung we pull ourselves out of ourselves, reaching for something greater. If we could just hold on.

I wish I could have held on longer.

These poetic and beautiful words are full of regret about unseized hope, about self-denied happiness.

What Mae is saying here is that broken people tend to make life decisions that only drag them deeper into misery. But real and healthy love is something “we climb to”. Pulling “ourselves out of ourselves” means not staying stuck in who we are. It means giving up our addiction to misery and making the effort to create a new and better version of ourselves. It means to sacrifice who we are for what we can be. It means giving up the Ego and growing into the Self, the space of our personal possibilities. And Mae feels guilty of not having been courageous enough to overcome her fears and grow beyond her past self.

At this point it is crucial to remember that Nick’s last name, Bannister, is something we use to pull ourselves up. This also reflects Orpheus and Eurydice’s ascend from the underworld. Orpheus was leading Eurydice back up into life. In a sense, Nick’s love was something like a blessing for Mae – a blessing she didn’t grasp. Paulo Coelho writes: “Every blessing refused transforms into a curse.” And Mae is now aware that what lead to her doom was her inability to hold on to Nick’s lead longer – her lack of faith. Why did she lack faith? Since “Nothing is more addictive than the past”, as Nick says, it is equally true that nothing is more addictive than misery.

The Archetype of the Female Hero

But Mae speaks her words not for herself. For she had already made the decision to kill herself before Boothe could make her reveal where she had hidden the child. She speaks to Nick. And this is where a crack of light finally finds its way into the story.

As much as we may tend to see the typical “femme fatale” cliché in Mae, she is not. Instead, by sacrificing herself to protect the child, she fulfils the archetypal behaviour of female heroism. The actually failed woman, archetypically speaking, would be the one sacrificing the child to save her Ego. It’s the narcissistic mother that refuses to sacrifice her pleasure to give love to her child – or even the woman that refutes motherhood because she doesn’t want the responsibility towards her child to deprive her of the freedom of pursuing her own freedom. And just like Mae, Nick’s employee and best friend Watts also fulfils the archetype of female heroism. She chooses to straighten herself out, she quits drinking, and moves on to re-establish the broken relationship with her lost daughter.

In the end, only Nick fails to move on. He chooses to live for the rest of his days in a loop, reliving his memories of Mae, instead of moving on and finding someone new. Like Orpheus, he lost Eurydice, as the great Sören Kierkegaard wrote, “because he was tender, not brave”.

It is a rare occurrence that a brilliant movie falls under the radar of public recognition. As with Stanley Kubrick’s Blade Runner (1982), and Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995, written by James Cameron), who have in the meantime risen to the lofty ranks of all-time classics, this same thing has happened to Lisa Joy’s first feature film Reminiscence. This is very likely to change – especially with Lisa Joy earning more recognition for her unique style in her future projects.

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