“You’re waiting for a train,” Marion Cotillard’s Mal purrs at her husband, Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception (2010). It’s the opening of a line we’ve heard before, with Mal first offering to tell Ariadne (Ellen Page) a “riddle” after the two women cross paths in Cobb’s subconscious. In that scene, it’s being recited as Mal circles Ariadne like a predator does prey. “A train that will take you far away. You know where you hope this train will take you, but you don’t know for sure. But it doesn’t matter.” It’s Cobb who delivers the punchline – “because you’ll be together” – before he and Ariadne flee the setting. In this scene, the second time we hear the riddle that seems to bond the deceased Mal to her spouse Cobb, we understand an additional layer of context as she recites the line while teetering on a window ledge. As she repeats it, key moments are inaudible as Cobb begs and pleads with her to step back inside. It doesn’t matter for the viewer, as we’ve already heard this tale and we know the dialogue. What does matter is the end: Mal plunges to her death while Cobb screams.
This version of events is recounted to Ariadne at the beginning of the penultimate dream heist of Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster masterpiece. It adds another layer of context to what Ariadne has already seen, but not the final layer as that’s what Inception is all about: layers. Layers of our mind, layers of our subconscious, layers of our desires and layers of our truth are all explored within the literal layers of Nolan’s dreamworld. This line too is used to represent that, appearing at three key points in the story structure (the constraints and confines of which we know Nolan is obsessed with through previous films such as The Prestige (2006), Memento (2000) and Dunkirk (2017)). The first time we hear Academy Award-winner Cotillard utter “you’re waiting for a train” it’s in the first third of Inception and we’re not necessarily hip to its significance … yet. The second time it appears is in the middle third of the film, with “you’re waiting for a –” immediately echoing through our minds as the dialogue repeats. Yet the setting is different, so too the context and delivery as Cobb reveals the partial truth about his wife’s tragic death. The final time we hear it, it’s not Cotillard delivering the dialogue but DiCaprio in Inception’s concluding third. “You’re waiting for a – ” he begins, as the two lovers clutch hands while literally waiting for a train that will liberate them from the fog of the dream world.
In that moment, he’s revealing the real truth: that he’s responsible for his wife’s death by planting an idea in her head that her reality wasn’t true and she was lost in a dream world, only for the inception of that idea to take hold so well it possesses her in the real world too. In the first instance, Mal and Cobb complete the riddle by splitting the dialogue. In the second instance, it’s solely Mal. In the third, solely Cobb. Yet each time “you’re waiting for a – ” begins, Ariadne is there as another layer of truth about Cobb and his past is revealed. If Édith Piaf’s La Vie En Rose is supposed to act as the audible kick in the dream world for members of the heist team, Nolan deploys “you’re waiting for a – ” as the emotional kick for Cobb in the audience’s world as the line leads us down a deeper and deeper hole where the reality of who is waits.