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Inception: Like a Surrealist Painting

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Inception has astounding visuals and layers of meaning, much like the best paintings do. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.
Inception has astounding visuals and layers of meaning, much like the best paintings do. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Inception is a beautiful movie.  I don’t mean that it’s visually pretty, but that it’s got some astounding visuals and layers of meaning, much like the best paintings do.  If you were to freeze certain frames you’d have some images that are magical along the lines of some of the best surreal painters.  Rene Magritte’s paintings work along the same lines that the film does; both construct images that are rendered realistically but are impossible physical situations.  While Magritte’s paintings are dreamlike, Inception takes place in dreams.

My favorite scene in the movie is when Cobb (played by Leonardo Dicaprio) is training Ariadne (played by Ellen Page) about dreaming, while they sit at a sidewalk café.  Suddenly everything around them appears to blow up while they sit still and images of debris in a million different shapes and colors slowly float around them.  In that moment the viewer feels caught in their time and space,  while circumstances happen around them.

Some of the other would be stills or paintings from the film are: when buildings fold up and upon each other, a scene where gravity has vacated the dream the players are in and they float and pull and are pushed through the air, yet another has Cobb falling slow motion in a chair into a bath tub of water.  This last one happens so slowly that you feel like you are watching a series of stills with water splashing up and around Cobb as he leans back. It’s as if air and water are working in concert to take him to the water’s surface.

Visually there are many scenes where physical impossibilities are occurring.  But they are also happening in the mind.  Cobb starts to wonder if he can tell the difference between dreaming and real life even as the architects of the dream have created their own version of reality.  When looking at a Magritte painting, the people within them know only the reality they are part of.


Magritte’s painting “Attempting the Impossible” shows a man painting a woman into existence, the perfect example of something Cobb says to Ariadne “An idea can transform the world and rewrite all the rules.” Which is just what Inception does with its visual painting.