Films in Flashback

Films in Flashback.

While many directors and screenplay writers employ the flashback as a tool to enhance a character’s background or provide additional information to a scene, there are those films that are narrated almost in their entirety in flashback. A central character, a protagonist, narrates the unfolding story to another character onscreen and therefore in turn to the audience either as the story unfolds in the book or as their memory of events.

  • The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) Wes Anderson
  • The Notebook (2004) Nick Cassavetes
  • The Limey (1999) Steven Soderbergh

The Notebook movie poster smallThese films have very little in common other than that they are narrated entirely in flashback. In The Notebook (2004) the character Duke, played by James Garner reads from his notebook to a another resident Mrs Hamilton in a nursing home played by Gena Rowlands about the life of a young couple who met and fell in love in the 1940’s and before America entered the war in Europe. The premise of the film until the very end is that Garners character is reading the story of this young couple, Noah and Allie, in the 3rd person, as Allie’s character played by Rowlands is in late stage Dementia and remembers very little if anything of her past life, including family or friends and doesn’t even remember that Duke played by Garner has read this story to her many times. Later in the film we learn that is Duke is actually Noah and is telling their story as Mrs Hamilton, Rowlands (Allie) is his wife and they are the young couple featured in the story (Cassavetes, 2004)

The Grand Budapest Hotel movie poster smallThe Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) Interestingly, the story is told entirely in flashback by the Author (the young writer, played by Jude Law) who is actually retelling the story of another main character in the film Mr Mustafa (Zero), it is Mustafa’s memories of the events involving himself and his association with the other main character, Monsieur Gustave H (played by Ralph Fiennes) and the series of misadventures, that befall them when trying to claim the contents of a will, the valuable painting of ‘Boy with apple’. (Anderson, 2014)

In both these films there is no obvious cinematic device used to differentiate between the current timeline and the past timeline, by this I mean a dissolve or blurring of the image but the jump in timeline is differentiated by a change in look and character. in The Notebook (2004) it is the opening of the notebook and as Duke (Garner) begins to read, the timeline switches to the 1940’s and the audience can identify with the change, this transition as the characters also change to their younger selves, they are played by the younger actors, Duke (Noah) played by Ryan Gosling and Mrs Hamilton (Allie) played by Rachel McAdams. However, in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) while there are no obvious uses of the flashback visual tools, that is a cut to a dissolve or blurring to identify the shift from the timeline of the Authors meeting with Mr Mustafa that is, Zero (set in the 1960s) and the recounted timeline (1930’s) however there is a marked change in the production design (Colours) and the choice of cinematic aspect ratio with the 1980’s shot in 1:85.1 format, the 1960’s in 2:35.1 widescreen anamorphic and finally the 1930’s shot in academy ratio 1:375.1. The hotel in the 1960’s is drab, mainly brown or as Wes says “his idea of the communist era, which is olive green and orange” while also appearing run down, meanwhile the 1930’s Hotel is bright, very pink and vibrant like a “wedding cake”. (Wes Anderson on the Colors and Ratios of ’The Grand Budapest Hotel – YouTube, 2015)

The Limey movie poster smallThe Limey (1999) Interesting example of the use of flashbacks, with the creative use of the editing process that seems to make it appear as if the film is always looking backwards or as the Director suggests, representing the fragmentation of Wilsons memory. There are flashbacks within flashbacks and flashbacks looking much further back, into a past with a young Wilson and young Jenny, these flashbacks were dropped into the edit from another film directed by Ken Loach, Poor Cow (1967) this works so well that the audience doesn’t have to imagine a younger Wilson or Jenny they can link directly through to the characters past and Wilsons memories of a young Jenny in the use of footage showing a young Terence Stamp playing the role of a petty criminal in Poor Cow (1967).

Poor Cow 1967

Of course, this somewhat relies on the audience not being aware that this footage is from another film made in 1967, however their use as a flashback make perfect sense. The grainy visuals from an earlier time using old film stock perfectly fitting into the flashback concept of showing memories from an earlier time. The film is designed, according to Soderbergh, to reflect on how human memory functions, we remember past events in fragments triggered by events, objects or any of the sensory inputs. “It’s a graphic depiction of the fragmentary nature of memory, editor Sarah Flack turning the shards of story into fleeting reflections that capture Jenny between shifting planes of recollection”. (Gurd, 2019) The same can be said of Wilson, his memories are fragmented, recollections of Jenny on the beach, her threatening to call the Police on him if he does anything bad, which later becomes important in the final scenes of the film and may have influenced Wilsons decision not to go through with the killing of Valentine. “Soderbergh creates an historical symmetry between past/present and Valentine/Wilson with identical scenes of Jenny as a young girl threatening to expose her father’s criminal activity and the older Jenny in a similar situation with Valentine (holding a telephone in both cases). The closer Wilson gets to the truth the more he comes to realize his own complicity as an absent father in her daughter’s death.” (Totaro, 2002)

Soderbergh says “Given its premise, it seemed there was some possibility to recraft it into a memory piece”. (Fear, 2019) Eduardo shares his experiences of being with Jenny through flashbacks, those of her confrontation with the men at the warehouse for example, the same men that Wilson later shoots dead after his beating at the warehouse.

Flashbacks triggered by a sound, a smell or indeed anything can trigger these memories and while in the film these triggers are not always visible on screen, we can imagine that they are there, experienced by Wilson, triggering these memories of his fragmented past life with his daughter, Jenny, while in and out of prison.


The Limey shooting ValentineWilson also experiences a flashforward, a prolepsis, initiated I suspect by Wilson finding a solitary photograph of his daughter, Jenny, at the top of the stairs, during his wandering around Valentines home, these flashforwards appear as alternative futures and all violent, in the scene when Wilson visualises the alternative options/outcomes of killing Valentine, by shooting him, only to be stopped at the moment of execution by Eduardo.

Soderbergh says “We created or tried to create, meaning and emotion through repetition and juxtaposition, which again, is something that’s unique to movies. The ability to mold something and then change the meaning or alter the meaning just by reordering and repeating things, that’s unique in film.” (Boucher, 2019)

What is the purpose of the Flashback?

The Notebook Duke reading to AllieIn The Notebook (2004) the flashbacks are like many examples of the flashback usage in film, it is used to link to a past, a past in this case forgotten in its entirety by Allie. Duke uses the notebook as a form of misdirection, so as not to be seen as recalling from his own memories, in the retelling of what is their story. Duke appears to read from his book in the hope that Allie will regain her memory of their past life together through his readings. In many respects this misdirection works, as Allie believes the story is of a couple unknown to her, just an interesting story of young love until she has a lucid moment and she remembers that Duke is her husband and the story he has been telling her, is their own. One of the possible reasons for this filmmaking approach is to also keep the audience guessing until the point in the film that it becomes clear that they and the young couple visited in the flashbacks are one and the same and then from this point to keep the audience interest and the suspense, in the hope that at some point Allie will remember their past life together.

The Grand Budapest Hotel Authors StatueThe Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) from the opening scene, of the girl at the statue of the Author, she is carrying a copy of his book and we assume that from this book the whole film is told in a flashback through each of its different times of the past life of the author and the past life through the memories of Mustafa retold from his initial meeting with Mustafa in the spa and then continued at a shared evening meal in the hotels restaurant. In many respects a similar approach to that used in The Notebook (2004). Anderson himself relates that the idea for the film came from a series of books that he was reading by Austrian author Stefan Zweig. “The Grand Budapest Hotel has elements that were sort of stolen from both these books. Two characters in our story are vaguely meant to represent Zweig himself — our “Author” character, played by Tom Wilkinson” (Prochnik, 2014)

Note: It would be interesting to consider films that also use this approach, that is, the concept of reading from a book to tell a story in flashback, for example The Never Ending Story (1984) and The Princess Bride (1987)

The Limey (1999) This film was effectively created in the post-production stage, in the editing processes. We learn from interviews with the director Steven Soderbergh that the first edit of the film was in a typical linear progression and then following a screening he decided with his editor to fragment the footage by creating a non-linear timeline using flashbacks for the film, to better represent the seemingly fragmented memory and to explain the actions of Wilson. We return to the same shot of Wilson seated on the plane several times, these seemingly breaking up the linear sequence or returning the audience through flashbacks to the current timeline and with this also to Wilsons thought processes. So, I feel it is this single shot of Wilson seated on the plane returning to London, which initiates the flashbacks and what can be the confusion of a film that is always looking backwards.

The Limey Wilson on plane screenshot

Confusingly one of these images of Wilson on the plane can also be seen as a flashforward, the first time we see Wilson seated on the plane at the beginning of the film, which seems to be of him travelling from London to the America but is actually the direct opposite. The opening sequence of Wilson shot at the Los Angeles airport, is of his departure back to London, we never see his London departure or his arrival in Los Angeles. The subsequent on plane images seemingly preceding flashbacks to his pursuit of revenge for his daughters killing. Totaro thinks that “To read that first airplane image as a flashforward and the film a flashback makes sense of most of the film, but not all because there are several scenes in which Wilson could not have been present.” (Totaro, 2002) I’m not sure if I am in total agreement with this statement because like all memories they can be derived from actual experience or based on inference and imagination of a situation or event, indeed a collective memory.

The flashback is a privileged moment in unfolding that juxtaposes different moments of temporal reference. A juncture is wrought between present and past and two concepts are implied in this juncture: memory and history. (Turim, 2013)

Memory loss, erasure and representation in flashback


Anderson, W. (2014) The Grand Budapest Hotel · BoB. Available at: (Accessed: 31 January 2020).

Boucher, G. (2019) ‘The Limey’ At 20: Steven Soderbergh Revisits His “Vortex Of Terror” – Deadline. Available at: (Accessed: 10 February 2020).

Cassavetes, N. (2004) The Notebook. Amazon Prime. Available at: ONLINE Accessed 30/01/2020.

Fear, D. (2019) Steven Soderbergh on the 20th Anniversary of ‘The Limey’ – Rolling Stone. Available at: (Accessed: 5 February 2020).

Gurd, J. (2019) Reflections Of Jenny: THE LIMEY At 20 | Birth.Movies.Death. Available at: (Accessed: 4 February 2020).

Prochnik, G. (2014) ‘I stole from Stefan Zweig’: Wes Anderson on the author who inspired his latest movie – Telegraph. Available at: (Accessed: 10 February 2020).

Totaro, D. (2002) The Limey – Offscreen. Available at: (Accessed: 10 February 2020).

Turim, M. (2013) Flashbacks in film: Memory & history, Flashbacks in Film: Memory & History. Taylor and Francis. doi: 10.4324/9781315851761.

Wes Anderson on the Colors and Ratios of ’The Grand Budapest Hotell – YouTube (2015). Available at: (Accessed: 3 February 2020).