Breaking and entering

Following is Memento director's first foray in film noir

Since English writer-director Christopher Nolan structured his sleeper hit Memento in reverse chronological order, it's only fitting that we should now flash back to 1998 and view Nolan's first picture, Following. Shoestring-budget debut films often seem like a means for aspiring moviemakers to learn their craft while giving themselves a credit, something to get their foot in the industry's door and facilitate acquiring new, higher-profile projects with more cinematic resources.

Anticipating narrative tropes and ideas that Memento would improve upon, Following comes across as a low-key work from a promising amateur. Nolan's watchful point of view and often intriguing twists keep the audience's attention, although Following's path can prove both convoluted and insubstantial.

"The following is my explanation," announced unemployed would-be writer Bill (Jeremy Theobald), giving the title another possible meaning. Addressing an unknown second person, he reveals how he developed a habit of shadowing strangers on the London streets, not for sinister reasons, but simply for the glimpse into their lives. Nolan captures busy street scenes with black-and-white, hand-held photography and rattling sound effects on the background score, setting a note of alienation with the voice-over narration (a bit reminiscent of Croupier's detached tone).

At a coffee shop, Bill's hobby is discovered by Cobb (Alex Haw), a well-dressed, yuppie-looking fellow with a prominent forehead and a forthright manner. Finding no threat in his disheveled stalker, Cobb reveals that he is, by profession, a thief, having turned breaking and entering into an exact science. Already voyeuristic, Bill finds himself accompanying Cobb on his daylight heists. (Since the cast and the crew had full-time jobs, Following was shot over a year's worth of Saturdays, at the homes of Nolan's friends and parents.)

Nolan's dialogue is its most clever when Cobb enters the homes of strangers and psychoanalyzes them swiftly and precisely based on their possessions. One of the most ruefully amusing scenes has the twosome breaking into Bill's own squalid apartment, Bill being curious to hear Cobb's assessment. Cobb concludes that he's unwilling to steal from anyone so clearly pathetic.

The film also follows Bill at a point in the near future when, clean shaven and wearing snappier clothes, he gets involved with a tough-edged dame (Lucy Russell), simply called "The Blonde" in the credits, who's the former moll to a mobbed-up club owner. She doesn't know that Bill has already burgled her house, and he becomes increasingly obsessed with her. When he plots to break into the old boyfriend's club, we suspect that Bill's being set up for a fall.

Like Memento, here we see events out of sequence, like the early scene that finds a beaten Bill spitting a rubber glove out of his mouth, which goes unexplained for some time. But Memento's structure is well justified, while there's little pretext for Following to jump back and forth, except to tease the audience. Scrambling the narrative doesn't fit the framing device of Bill telling the story.

The film concludes with revelations that bring both surprises and confusion. It's not crucial that a noir film's twisty plot be 100 percent consistent — Humphrey Bogart's The Big Sleep famously fails to hold water — but if you try to unravel Following, the secret, underlying scheme seems increasingly untenable. As the story construction grows complicated, the relationships stay overly simplistic, with the dynamic between bullying Cobb and passive Bill changing little over the course of the film, although Theobald makes an effective central character.

Nor does it help that Lucy Russell is crucially miscast as a femme fatale. Often the actress has an affectless delivery that is probably meant to sound dispassionate and tough, but simply comes across as flat and drowsy. And while noir women needn't be classic beauties, they must have a compelling sizzle, a predatory charisma, to ensnare the protagonist and the audience, which Russell simply lacks.

Following includes visual elements that Nolan returned to in Memento, like showing a character's facial scars before revealing how he got them. Bill taping bundles of money to his flesh anticipates the tattoos that cover Guy Pearce. Unfolding over a brisk 70 minutes, Following has flashes of interest, but Nolan truly hit his stride with the follow-up.??