Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Pictures
by Milo Garner Essays Feature Articles Featured Film

A Synonym for Belief: Tenet as Fugue

March 7, 2024

In his lifetime, Johann Sebastian Bach was not considered one of the great composers. He was known for his virtuosic ability, but his vast oeuvre remained largely unheard and unsought. After his death, his music dwindled into obscurity: certain keyboard pieces remained in general circulation, though generally for the purpose of music education. Writing at the zenith – and the ending – of the baroque idiom, Bach became old-fashioned, swept over by the new Galant and then classical styles, which were lighter in texture and simpler in composition. It was only nearly 80 years after his death when Felix Mendelssohn’s performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion sparked what would become known as the Bach Revival, from which his reputation and influence soared to now untouchable heights. With this article, a mere four years since its subject was issued into the world, I intend to begin the Tenet Revival.

The choice of comparison is not incidental. In the way Bach’s music was criticized in his lifetime, Tenet is also often accused of surfeit complexity, of interlacing and overlapping layers, and of showboating virtuosity that does not, by its nature, indicate good art. More specifically, it helps to invoke the fugue, the form that Bach mastered so well that to mention a fugue is, indirectly, to refer to Bach. In simple terms, the fugue is an artform of repetition and of unity. A subject – a musical theme – is introduced, and through the length of the piece it will be repeated, imitated, and transformed. Other countersubjects may follow this initial theme. In certain circumstances, two subjects might be inverted; which is to say, the subject and the countersubject, having accompanied each other, are then flipped upside down and will accompany each other again. The diagram below illustrates this idea, with the subject marked in red and the countersubject in blue. The essence of the fugue is the repetition of simple material, which in so doing accumulates complexity and interrelation. But in the baroque fugue, this essence is determined by strict harmonic rules. Dissonance is used sparingly, and in those moments which Bach does exploit dissonance in his fugues, he is also swift to resolve it back to consonance. Therein lies a sense of balance. A fugue will often travel far from its original key signature, but it must always end in the tonic – the original key – in which it began. After its long, meandering journey, the music must come home. The fugue is therefore defined by its restrictions; it is the complex patterning of simple themes, bound by the harmonic structures of Western music.

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So we arrive at Tenet, a film which – while not technically fugal in form – arranges itself as a strict, overlapping structure. We can imagine the film as though it is shaped like a sideways U; this is a more useful metaphor than its frequent designation as a “palindromic” film. The beginning of the film – which we can interpret as the bottom prong of the U – features the opera siege which establishes our characters, their motivations, and the abstract stakes at play. This scene is exactly parallel to the finale of the film – the top prong of the U – namely the siege of Stalsk-12, which resolves our characters, their motivations, and those same abstract stakes. These events occur simultaneously. The far end of the U – the curved turnaround – is then represented by the Tallinn heist (which occurs roughly at the midpoint). At this stage the film, which had up until here pointed forward and moved linearly, changes direction. It will now run backward in time, until it reaches the end of the top prong – until it has returned to the beginning of the film – where it must end. This is the loop of Tenet.

Though there is one additional complication. Approximately one-third into the film, at the Rotas complex in Oslo, our otherwise unnamed protagonist encounters an equally unnamed antagonist. Our protagonist is moving forward in time, while this antagonist is moving backward. They tangle in a bizarre, literal back-forth combat; physics behaves strangely between these men moving in opposite streams of time. The antagonist escapes; the scene concludes ambiguously. One-third from the end of the film, we return to Oslo. We are now aware that this “antagonist” is, in fact, the protagonist. The fight scene is rendered again, now in reverse-time, repeating the exact same choreography but from the physical perspective of the “inverted” combatant. It is a strange, unwieldy inversion of the subject. And it is here that Tenet most resembles the fugue. It’s worth remembering that the term “fugue” is derived from the Latin verbs fugere – to flee – and fugare – to chase. In this scene, the protagonist simultaneously chases himself and flees himself; the scene – like the inverted subjects in the above diagram – repeats the same material, but with inverse emphasis. There is perhaps another genre of music – also written by Bach – that might suit these repeated, bilinear scenes: the crab canon. It’s a piece of music that can be played backwards and forwards, simultaneously.

But all of this structural conversation necessarily brings us to the crux: so what? Has this not all amply demonstrated a film whose technical fireworks relate to nothing but itself? As impressive as Bach’s fugal mastery is, the fugue slowly faded in terms of musical relevance after his death. By the Romantic era, the dense counterpoint of the fugue was totally eschewed for sweeping, emotive music, which did not appeal directly to structural unity or integrity, but specifically raged against these limits so as to express the light and darkness of the human spirit. Modernism, which succeeded Romanticism, then strove to break the strict contrapuntal and harmonic rules that governed the fugue. Here was music that sought the artistic experience outside the tight bounds of traditional harmonic theory; music that set out to break down the structures Bach had mastered. In many respects, this impulse defines the modern cinema, in which audiences most of all desire a strong emotional catharsis, or instead find enjoyment in films that break from the preordained structures and restrictions of form. If we were to engage with the actual narrative of Tenet, we encounter a dreary, uninspired riff on so many regurgitated James Bond tropes — secret agents, plans to destroy the world, and half-baked allusions to environmental collapse, characters so obviously bland that they aren’t even given names. Is Tenet not an illusion, by which a lousy story is wrapped up in an astoundingly complex ribbon – a ribbon that great minds might struggle to untie – so as to distract us from what isn’t there?

I would make the opposite claim. In fact, profane as Tenet’s narrative may appear, its lack of detail is fundamental to the film’s general and overwhelming success. Again we return to the fugue. If we were to evaluate the fugue as a musical form – and so not by particular pieces of music – we might understand its value in two ways. First, by means of virtuosity. Managing so many contesting voices, and ensuring that harmonies remain consistent and persistent, is a task that requires a great understanding of musical theory. And the greater the complexity, the more impressive the fugue. But beyond this surface evaluation, within the fugue lies also the interrelation of all music. In its snaking meanders, it reasserts the pleasing, consonant nature of accepted harmony; it winds its way so abstrusely so as to prove – by the most complex route – that there is unity, and order, and beauty, in what are the fundamental rules of musical composition. A simple, meager melody can be flown to such heights by the contrasting, contrapuntal lines above and below it; the catharsis experienced is then not strictly that of the emotional tenor, by which music is moving for the lilt of its melody, nor impressive for bravado or innovation, but rather for its clockwork consistency. This is music that, by its very nature, proves the harmonic compass and, in its most impressive form, can stretch that musical possibility to its absolute limit.

Credit: Warner Bros.

And so encountering Tenet, we receive a similar structural justification, though one arguably far more significant. Where the fugue embodies the beauty of harmonic unity, Tenet expands further as to embody the beauty of physical unity. The premise of the film is founded on the notion of inevitable process; that every effect possesses a cause (and, when inverted, every cause possesses an effect). To move forward means, in a reversed world, to move backward. But in whichever case – forward or backward – the physics of the universe must act (or react) in a specific and consistent way. Causality becomes the binding virtue of the film’s U-shaped structure, as all those things that have occurred in the lower arm of the U must be repeated in exactly the same (but inverted) manner in the upper arm. This is why it is essential that Nolan exhibits a Bach-like virtuosity in his expression of these ideas. If he were, as is typical of time-traveling cinema, to “cheat” his audience in any small way, for the purpose of effect or convenience of narrative, the entire project would collapse. It must be, when we see the same scene played “inverted,” that the actions of the previous scene are repeated precisely; that the causality is entirely consistent between these actors, and within this narrative.

Throughout the film, characters will constantly demand our protagonist “stop thinking in linear terms,” and the effect of the film is to express this same demand of its viewer. We must understand, when looking at inverted characters from an uninverted point of view, that cause and effect are reversed. That when the inverted Sator counts down from three to the uninverted protagonist he is, in fact, counting up from zero, and that therefore the threat of violence he implies when he “reaches” zero cannot be actualized because, from his point of view, that time has already passed. That sentence is the kind that is likely to cause headaches; Tenet, no matter the number of repeat viewings, always demands of its audience the utmost attention to untangle its simultaneous and simultaneously complex physical arrangements. There is no room for a narrative, or for characters, who exist beyond the barest of bones. This is a cinema of tactile, moving dimensions; it is those, and not the human dramas layered on top of them, that ought to receive central focus. I would stress this to such an extent as to suggest that the essence and meaning of the film are conveyed in its formal exactness. If this film – with the same structure and plotting – were made lazily, or incompetently, it would be totally worthless. The theme is not communicated by dialogue or character (even if these things reinforce it). The form embodies the theme; the execution equals the effect.

Tenet is therefore a film that takes on its most satisfying life when it is rewatched. It is in the rewatching that Tenet transforms from a puzzle box, whose many strands must be brought together by inquiring minds, into what is for me a fundamentally comforting film. Not despite it being made up of so many interlocking cogs and meshing engines, but very much because of them. While every film printed on celluloid must make its linear progress from beginning to end – and must therefore have a predetermined ending, which is the same for every repetition – in Tenet this inevitable repetition is made integral to the form of the film. To watch Tenet again is to recognize that, simultaneous to the very first scene, the plot of the film has been resolved. As we watch our protagonist discover the nature of “Tenet,” we know that Sator has been killed, and his plans for global apocalypse have been thwarted. The only division between the beginning of Tenet and the end is geographical. Therefore, in each passing scene, the repeat-audience knows that victory is assured, as quite literally it has already been achieved. The remainder of the action is the physical motion in beautiful harmony, creating the exact pattern necessary to achieve this preordained ending. What has been, must be; by the same token (in a world where entropy is bilinear), what will be must be. Throughout art, the notion of a determined future is represented as an oppressive, restrictive horror. But in Tenet, this same inevitability is represented as a reassuring foundation. That the world is therefore not chaotic; not random; not disordered. The clock must tick, one second per second, in one direction or the other. The characters in the film therefore act, not despite the inevitable nature of reality, but because of it. Each step forward is an act of faith that the foot will land on a firm ground, and the next will swing by. Tenet proposes that all action is a fundamental restatement of faith in the physical universe, in the laws that keep the world in shape. It is a rarity in great art – a return to the fugues of old – for a film to so thoroughly celebrate the nature of inevitability; the limitations of the physical world. To perceive causality, to perceive its infinite consistency, and to find in that consistency a circular beauty. The word “tenet” is a synonym for belief.