The other Ariadne

In the film Inception, a brilliant student architect is recruited to design the three-layered dreamscape for a daring exploit of reverse industrial espionage -- the implantation of an idea into the mind of the heir to a commercial empire. The architect's name is Ariadne, the same as that of the heroine in the myth of the Minotaur, the fearsome half-human monster who lives at the center of the Cretan labyrinth. In the myth, Ariadne, daughter of king Minos, gives the Athenian hero Theseus a sword and a ball of thread so that he can slay the Minotaur and escape the labyrinth. However, the film's Ariadne, played by Ellen Page, is not a love-struck princess who betrays her father for the sake of the hero. Rather, she has much common with the clever Daedalus, who designed the Minotaur's enclosure.

However, what lies at the center of the labyrinth is not a physical monster, but any hero's greatest fear -- that of confronting his own failure and guilt. Inception's Ariadne is the only member of the team who realizes that the team leader, Cobb (Leonardo di Caprio), has allowed such a monster to grow in his own mind and must face it if they are all to survive. Instead of giving the hero a ball of thread to find his way out, this Ariadne helps Cobb find his way in.  

But there is another, sadder aspect of the Ariadne-Theseus-Minotaur myth that is also represented in Inception, one far less well known, probably because it tarnishes the image of Theseus as a hero. After Theseus kills the Minotaur, Ariadne's betrayal means she can't stay in Crete. She joins Theseus in his flight back to Athens, but he abandons her on the island of Naxos. Some versions, though, say that Ariadne dreams of the god Dionysus, that he plans to marry her, and voluntarily chooses to remain behind to await his coming. So who represents this other Ariadne in Inception? It's Mal, Cobb's wife. I can't say much more without revealing some important plot twists, but suffice it to say that the themes of abandonment, rescue, and the choice between the dream world and the material world run in multiple layers through this film.

If Cobb is the Theseus-like hero, is there anything else about the Theseus myth that might provide a clue to the ambiguous ending of Inception? In Sophocles' play, Oedipus at Colonus, the wearied, blind king Oedipus, killer of his father and husband to his mother, has come to the end of his wanderings and finds merciful refuge with Theseus. In return, Oedipus blesses Theseus and his city and promises that, as long as Theseus and his heirs keep the secret of the place where Oedipus will die and be buried, Athens will remain safe from "the dragon's sons" of Thebes:

Presently now, without a soul to guide me,
I'll lead you to the place where I must die;
But you must never tell it to any man,
Not even the neighborhood in which it lies.
If you obey, this will count more for you
Than many shields and many neighbors' spears.
These things are mysteries, not to be explained;
But you will understand when you come there

Theseus apparently kept the secret, and the grave of Oedipus remains unknown. 

Just a couple of other fascinating connections between Inception and other films:  

  • Tom Hardy, who portrayed the thief/forger/impersonator Eames in Inception, was the hero Theo in the 2006 film Minotaur
  • Cobb's wife Mal is played by Marion Cotillard, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Edith Piaf in the 2007 bio-pic La Vie en Rose. And it is Piaf's "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" (No, I Regret Nothing) that provides the dreamnauts with an aural cue that the "kick" to wake them from the dream is about to take place -- just a coincidence, I've read in various articles, including Music in Media: Edith Piaf in Inception. For more on how that song permeates the entire soundtrack, read Edith Piaf vs. Inception's Mind Heist.