Can you still enjoy a movie if you don’t understand it?

'Tenet' and 'I'm Thinking Of Ending Things' have audiences baffled – but there's nothing wrong with a good head fuck

What’s Tenet all about then? We’ve done our best to explain the ending but that doesn’t necessarily mean the rest is going to make much sense if you’re not a professor of theoretical physics – and even then it might take a few watches to fully understand. What about Netflix’s new Charlie Kaufman comedy, I’m Thinking Of Ending Things? The early reviews are in and all everyone keeps ranting about is how confusing the whole thing is, with critics tagging it everything from “beautifully surreal” to “mind-bending nonsense”. But does it really matter if you come out of a film feeling baffled by what you’ve just seen? Can you still enjoy a movie if you don’t completely understand it? Of course you can. There’s nothing wrong with a good head fuck.

Tenet review
John David Washington and Robert Pattinson in Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’. Credit: Warner Bros.

For the most part, films are meant to be understood by everyone who watches them. Screenwriters are always told the importance of perfecting a snappy synopsis that sells the plot in a few sentences – with most movies starting life as a single paragraph that grabs the attention of busy producers. Characters are introduced at the start, challenges are faced in the middle and everything gets sorted out at the end, giving audiences a nice neat feeling of completion when the credits roll. There’s nothing wrong with any of this, and some of the best, smartest, most original films ever made share the same tried and tested storytelling format. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t also room for something a bit knottier.

While most movies take pleasure in revealing their cards, others deliberately keep them hidden up their sleeve. Some thrillers are built like puzzles that slowly reveal the whole picture, but others are Rubik’s Cubes that you have to twist and turn over and over in your head for weeks after you’ve seen it. You talk it over with your friends. You read through online fan theories. You keep watching it, thinking about it, growing up with it, changing your mind.

I'm Thinking Of Ending Things
Jessie Buckley in Charlie Kaufman’s ‘I’m Thinking Of Ending Things’. Credit: Netflix

The trick is to not try and understand it. Being confused by a film like Tenet creates a feeling of cognitive dissonance – a psychological term for the swell of discomfort that floods your brain when you experience a mental conflict (“I usually understand films. I don’t understand this film. WHAT’S GOING ON?!”) – but it’s a feeling that you have to ride out. Instead of leaving the cinema or switching channels, stick with it and let the waves of confusion wash over you – enjoy the film now and worry about what it all means later. Maybe you’ll think about it on the drive home and work it all out then. Maybe you’ll have to watch it again a few times before it clicks. Maybe you’ll never understand it, but that’s okay too.

2001: A Space Odyssey is rightly considered one of the greatest films ever made, but there’s no one single explanation for what it’s actually about. Dealing in big themes of artificial intelligence, existentialism and evolution, it’s a film that starts with 20 minutes of monkeys dancing around a big black rectangle and ends with a giant human baby floating inside a space egg. Shelves of books have been written about what it all might mean, but none of the lofty criticism takes away the fun of trying to work it out for yourself – or, better yet, of feeling humbled by the scope of it and knowing that you don’t need to have all the answers to feel awed and moved by it. Or, as one character says in Tenet, and as Christopher Nolan once said himself about Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece: “Don’t try to understand it, feel it.”

Donnie Darko
‘Donnie Darko’ has one of the most confusing endings in film history. Credit: Alamy

The ending of Donnie Darko makes no sense. Watching Darren Aronofsky’s Pi feels like getting a lobotomy (which is ironically how it ends…). Enemy, The Lobster, Primer, Upstream Colour, Only God Forgives, Holy Mountain, Antichrist and Holy Motors are all confusing as hell at times – and all utterly brilliant.

“A film or TV show is like a magic act, and magicians don’t tell how they did a thing,” says director David Lynch, a man who even manages to make a simple sentence sound slightly confusing. He’s also a man who made Mulholland Drive – a film full of characters who disappear and reappear as different people, dreams that are presented as reality and narrative jumps so puzzling that original DVDs shipped with a printed set of “clues” (which were written by Lynch himself, so obviously didn’t help at all). Is it a psychological crime thriller that speaks directly to the riddles of the subconscious, or a mixed-up mess that started life as a TV pilot and got clumsily edited back into a film? The answer, of course, is both. Or neither.

Whatever you think a film means, nothing else really matters. Just as abstract paintings usually provoke different responses from everyone who looks at them, abstract films work in exactly the same way. Some hated Tenet, some loved it, most found it really confusing – but any film that makes your brain explode a little bit has to be worth a rewatch.

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