When I was ten years old, there was absolutely zero doubt to be found in my mind that my favourite film was Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man finally had earned itself a replacement after I spent my entire childhood crawling around the floors in a Spider-Man outfit and always leaving the room during the oh-so-important spider bite sequence that gives Peter Parker his powers, and it oddly enough came in the form of a cam-rip (if memory serves me!) of a film that made my young head hurt. I didn’t understand much of what was happening – understandably – but the sense of spectacle and emotion was there, undoubtedly. It had a huge effect on me.
Years later, having delved deep (maybe too deep!) into world cinema and classic films, Nolan was much like the forgotten childhood toy, cast aside for something newer and more exciting to my newly acquired tastes. I had then and still do have quite a fixation on realism in cinema, and so Nolan’s sci-fi and comic book spectacles suddenly seemed so uninteresting, in spite of the current of realism that flows through in the seriousness of his direction and scriptwriting (which are so convincing that somehow even The Prestige and the sillier elements of the Dark Knight trilogy get something of a free pass) – in fact, I’d have gone so far to say that Nolan was outright boring. Now, this came from a certain level of contrarianism as well as watching too many Nolan interviews where he would go on about the importance of shooting on film, a side to him that always has and still does rub me the wrong way but was irritating to an entirely new degree at the point I’m talking about as I was in the midst of a huge binge on digital filmmaking (particularly the work of Tony Scott, Michael Mann, etc.) and felt that Nolan was effectively saying that these films weren’t good enough for him. It still strikes me as overly pretentious, but that’s against the point.
The buzz surrounding Tenet admittedly swept me up a little. And when the film released to Nolan’s most unfavourable reactions of his entire career so far, the curiosity only grew stronger. I knew nothing of what the film was about, and had only heard a few theories, so when the time came to finally see it (at home – I skipped the cinema viewing, regrettably) and I found myself more excited by it than I had been by a film in a long time, I was utterly amazed. Tenet was bold, it was much more experimental (though the world might set up the wrong expectations) than I’d have ever given it credit for as it trades in so many of the typical Hollywood blockbuster plot points in service of something that feels so much bigger. During the time of comic book movie fatigue, to see something like Tenet which is not only disconnected from the tried and tested tropes of contemporary Hollywood film but also dares to go to extremes in the other direction was mind-blowing to me. Nolan trades in character for spectacle like a crazed, bloodshot-eyed gambler in Vegas (something he had already tried in Dunkirk, a film that is fascinating now in Nolan’s career context but at the time of release was admittedly a little puzzling.), he manages to simultaneously remove and toy with the three act structure, doing a George Lucas and instead relying on Todorov’s narrative theory (pictured below) and Vladimir Propp’s character tropes to ensure he dips his toes just enough to remain on the pre-determined tracks of Hollywood but allows the rest of his body to explore. It isn’t perfect – the naming of John David Washington’s character as ‘The Protagonist’ still feels a little too on the nose as far as I’m concerned, but at the same time I have to admit that it is fun to see Nolan be a little cheeky, and this switch in his focuses is also visible in his choice of crew – his usual editor, Lee Smith, composer, Zimmer, and cinematography Wally Pfister are gone, and have been replaced with new blood.
Interestingly, I remember around the time of Dunkirk’s release hearing that it has been inspired by one of my absolute favourite directors Robert Bresson, and that was one of the main points of interest that I had in the film. At the time of seeing it in the cinema, I couldn’t see the connection, but seeing Nolan further his divorce from character and chase down this focus on spectacle years later in Tenet suddenly made everything clear. Just like Bresson, Nolan veers away from this reliance on actors and opts for ‘models’, as Bresson called his non-experienced actors, and Nolan paraphrases one of Bresson’s most famous quotes in an early scene in Tenet – “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” says the female scientist who teaches The Protagonist and the audience about the inverted bullets that have been found and studied, “I’d rather an audience feel a film before understanding it’ says Bresson, explaining his cinematic philosophies. It’d be understandable to find the main disconnect between the two to be Nolan’s focus on spectacle, though – Bresson’s films have always been small in scale for the most part, but my favourite of his films, L’Argent, seems the clearest example for comparison between the two directors. Bresson’s film is focused on a forged money note that leads everyone who comes into contact with it to doom (a study of the butterfly effect, among many other things), and whilst there aren’t very many characters physically involved in the plot or seen on screen, the way that Bresson films L’Argent makes it feel huge. Famous for his close-ups on hands, how can the downfall of a group of lives not be seen as huge, as spectacle? And how can Nolan, famous for his huge scale since 2005’s Batman Begins, increase that spectacle – by deviating from that which held him in place before, the characters, and making the spectacle take centre stage. In Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio’s quest to get back to his children and his past with Marion Cotillard’s Mal is used consistently to try to emotionally involve the audience, and the entire film hinges on Cillian Murphy’s emotional scene with his father at the end, but in Tenet everything is done in service of the entire world. Granted, Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat and her son are used to represent the world as a whole throughout – when The Protagonist inverts to start the third act, Pattinson’s Neil asks him if he is going back to save Kat, but David Washington says no, his focus is on the world (of course, later plot points reveal true motives too, and back this up).
To see a director with a string of successes as strong as Nolan has had dare to switch up his style in such a radical way still surprises me. Interstellar is the clear turning point with its Spielberg-esque sentimentality that boils the film down to a parent’s undying love for their child (it seems that Nolan was experimenting here, expanding his crosscutting even further than he had in The Dark Knight Rises and using Eisenstein’s theories surrounding editing techniques in a far less scientific and disconnected manner), with Dunkirk and Tenet following it and seeing Nolan try to fully disconnect from character in service of a more precise, Kubrick-like cinema. As Filipe Furtado said about Tenet, it represents a time when it seems ‘a mechanical cinema [is] to replace a poetical one’, but that doesn’t make the film devoid of feeling. ‘Instinct.’, back to Bresson – Nolan would rather his audience feel the impact of his spectacle than fully understand it, even if his expositional sequences may suggest otherwise. It is art aiming to strike a certain chord that isn’t afraid to cut the other strings in the process. And whilst the two masters of cinema may disagree on the use of sound – Bresson adores the use of silence in certain moments whilst Nolan has always been more focused on ambient scores, they do agree on plenty.
After his trouble with Warner Bros. following his remarks regarding streaming services and the more negative than usual response to Tenet, it’s hard to tell where Nolan may go next with his work, but here’s hoping it’ll continue to lead him in directions as fascinating as Tenet was.