8 Films That Make Fascinating Use of Flashbacks

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Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour, written by Marguerite Duras, pioneered the use of flashbacks to mimic flashes of memories. In the 1959 film, this device is used in telling the story of a French actress and Japanese architect as they share their perspectives on war. The flashback technique reminds us of the sometimes painful ways that memories persist within us, despite our best attempts to forget them. Duras, a prolific author, playwright, and filmmaker, is the subject of a current retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center through October 22. In honor of her groundbreaking work, we’re revisiting other films we love that use flashbacks to tell their stories.

Wild at Heart

We can’t image that there’s an actor more perfectly suited to David Lynch’s weird world than Crispin Glover. The Rubin and Ed and Willard star makes a brief appearance in Wild at Heart as Lula’s disturbed cousin Dell (aka Jingle Dell, as he was obsessed with Christmas) in a flashback scene. “Dell was always fighting bad ideas,” Lulu narrates as we watch Glover’s crazed character shriek about sandwiches and aliens, while luxuriating in the cockroaches trapped in his underwear.

The Usual Suspects

In Bryan Singer’s neo-noir The Usual Suspects, flashbacks introduce us to the story told by captured con man Verbal Kint about his criminal associates and a mysterious hit man known as Keyser Söze. While the tale is full of violence and intrigue, it’s not the images in the flashbacks themselves that provoke us. The narrative tool contributes to a confused and jumpy editing style that Singer employs. We are further disoriented by the flashbacks, as a crook is using them to tell the story, which makes us question their sincerity (mirroring the skepticism of Chazz Palminteri’s cop who interrogates Kint). And, of course, the flashbacks become part of the puzzle that folds in on itself when the truth is revealed.

Rashomon

Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 epic Rashomon introduced Japanese cinema to international audiences after winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. It also showed us how a non-linear narrative can be just as compelling as a traditional story. Kurosawa likened his unusual and minimalist approach to modern art. Centered on a brutal rape and murder that takes place in the woods near a village, four different characters share their perspective of the same story. Each flashback is personal and therefore fallible, making us question the nature or motives of the characters.

Citizen Kane

A technical moviemaking encyclopedia, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane employs a number of camera tricks that contribute to the enigmatic allure of publishing magnate Charles Foster Kane. A meshing of different perspectives on Kane’s life told in non-linear flashbacks simultaneously evokes our sympathy for the tortured man and our scorn for his ruthless practices.

Big Fish

A young man narrates the colorful story of his dying father’s life (Albert Finney) in Tim Burton’s moving family fable Big Fish. A quirky type, Edward Bloom is a storyteller—much to the frustration of his estranged son. “In telling the story of my father’s life, it’s impossible to separate the fact from the fiction, the man from the myth,” says Billy Crudup’s Will. “The best I can do is to tell it the way he told me. It doesn’t always make sense, and most of it never happened. But that’s what kind of story this is.” The flashbacks introduce us to Bloom’s eccentric characters who are brought to life by the movie’s end.

La jetée

Memory, time travel, still photographs, and flashbacks (within flashfowards) are the fragments of truth in Chris Marker’s French science fiction short La jetée. Paul Smith on ChrisMarker.org writes:

It’s from this hell–that is, the place from which, progressively, through jump cuts and flashbacks, memory’s event is drawn by the sweetness, the violence, and in any case the capture of recollection (from a time that resists elision because a part of the subject began to be born then)—it’s from this experimental terrain (this terrain which consists in a man navigating blindly, struggling along in a body alienated from its own images, in the film version of his unrecognizable life), it’s from here that the flower of pure love arises, the object of all of humanity’s nostalgia, the memory of a love becoming innocent in the image.

Don’t Look Now

After John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) lose their daughter in a tragic accident, we watch the couple’s relationship unravel while mysterious, supernatural sightings and events add further strain. Similar to Hiroshima mon amour, the flashbacks in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now appear as brief glimpses, recalling the way memories often flash before us in the blink of an eye. At times the flashbacks are jolting, which adds to the fractured sense of time and space recurring throughout.

It’s a Wonderful Life

Frank Capra’s use of flashbacks in the beloved 1946 fantasy film span George Bailey’s (James Stewart) life and the lives of people he has touched through his kindness. After he attempts to commit suicide on Christmas, he is saved by a guardian angel named Clarence. We then see in flashbacks the guardian angel George has been on Earth, helping those in his community. DVD talk posits that the flashbacks were not necessarily a narrative device, as much as a last ditch effort to save what Capra thought was a failing film: “What if that entire opening sequence, indeed, the entire flashback framework, had been invented in the editing room and designed as cheaply as possible, scavenging every useful piece of leftover trim available? What if the flashback structure, with the angel Clarence being briefed on George’s life, was the ‘save’ imposed on a film that wasn’t working?” Read the full thesis, here.