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Finding the Meaning of Tenet: On Watching the First COVID-19 Era Blockbuster

The following piece contains no plot spoilers; it offers a general discussion of the themes of “Tenet” and reflects on the experience of watching the film during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The cultural significance conferred on Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” by the COVID-19 pandemic is historic. Not only did “Tenet” become possibly the most awaited film ever—the very reason for the long wait couldn’t have been more dramatic. As the global spread of coronavirus threw much of life and the economy off the rails, questions pertaining to “Tenet” multiplied and gained heft practically day by day. When will it open? Will it open at all? Will there still be cinemas when it opens? Last but not least, will humanity still be around to see it?!?!

I saw the film on the day of its Polish premiere on August 26th at a 10:20 AM screening in a multiplex in the center of Warsaw. There were perhaps 30 viewers inside the huge auditorium, all wearing face masks and sticking to official pandemic etiquette. (My viewing buddies sat apart from me, as prescribed.) The vibe was far from celebratory. It felt more like we were watching the film on the sly, rather than celebrating an art form historically associated with group experience. The fact that Nolan’s style is far from warm or generous, only multiplied the sensation. “Tenet” is a film that suggests a director so self-absorbed at his high-tech play that the audience for his film is by definition a group of bystanders. As it turns out, Nolan’s signature alienation (both narrative and stylistic) is oddly fitting for the socially-distant era in which his new film happens to hit theaters (although Ludwig Göransson’s throbbing, aggressive score could certainly be used for an illegal post-screening rave, should anyone feel inclined to participate in one).

At once high-tech and old-fashioned, “Tenet” is a film of contradictions. For all its elaborate time-bending and time-multiplying plot twists, this is still a film that derives its basic fun from the earliest trick in a cameraman’s book, namely playing motion in reverse. It also operates chiefly as an international spy thriller, complete with a Russian-accented villain, a mother in distress, and a suave main protagonist (who is even named Protagonist), clad in flawless attire and displaying fantastic physical fitness. Nothing new under the sun, except that the sun has been technologically refurbished. In this piece, I make the conscious choice of not discussing the plot of “Tenet,” but suffice to say that the film does not suffer from the lack of it. In fact, this is a frantically plotted movie: one in which information is thrown at us in spades, and the mere computing of it all makes one feel dizzy (if not downright numb).

But then, there are the set-pieces. As promised by the early trailers, “Tenet” abounds in spectacular images that all but fetishize their own HD clarity. Most of the film's memorable passages celebrate the surreal poetry of reversed physical processes: from a bullet re-entering a barrel of a gun as it reassembles all objects it was shot through, to entire buildings being re-erected after they first collapsed in flames. At its very best, “Tenet” offers a unique spectacle of characters striving for forward thrust amidst a giant ocean of reversed-motion frenzy, a feat incomparable with anything I have ever seen at the movies. As grandiose as some of those images are, especially in the full-blown combat sequences, “Tenet” is also full of modest wonders of visual poetry that seem to owe much to Jean Cocteau’s “Orphée” (1950), another film that used reversed motion to create a metaphor for a protagonist’s grappling with the past and the future. (In fact, rubber gloves used to catch “reversed” bullets early on in “Tenet” seem to pay direct homage to Cocteau.)

For a film that opens with a deft visual metaphor of democracy in crisis (the Kiev opera audience, drugged into a coma, sits passively as international spies and thugs duke it out in plain view, all looking alike), “Tenet” is a highly individualistic work. Whether “Tenet” has anything to say about humans as a community, though, I seriously doubt. There is no class diversity in the film. It takes place wall-to-wall in a world where a Brooks Brothers suit literally means dressing down. For all the Cold War mumbo-jumbo and references to atomic destruction, the film is almost quaint in averting its eyes from actual tensions that tear apart our present world. Not that this comes as a surprise. With this film, Nolan confirms himself as the ultimate technocratic classicist: a David Lean of mind-game sci-fi films, aristocratically weaving the world’s impending doom into a tantalizing, high-priced brainiac pretzel.

Will “Tenet” save cinema, or will it prove the ultimate litmus test of just how lethal COVID-19 has proven to the habit of theatre-going (and the business of theatre-running)? Time will tell. But then time, as “Tenet” elaborately goes on to prove, likes to play tricks on us. If I read the message of the film correctly, the image of the future we hold at any given moment stands in direct relation to what we think of ourselves in the present. If the future cinephiles will shun cinema, it is perhaps because we didn’t tend to the art carefully enough. I don’t know how to resolve the situation, but I may try playing “Tenet” in reverse once it comes out on home video. Then again, I’m probably already doing it in the future.

“Tenet” opened in some world territories; it opens in the US on 3 Sept.

Michał Oleszczyk

Michał Oleszczyk is a film critic and scholar based in Poland. In 2012, he has been named the Critic of the Year by the Polish Film Institute.

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