Knight Of Cups (2016)
Ah, a new Terence Malick film. Like the pulse of the tide the attitude of the critical fraternity ebbs and wanes with the Texas tested preacher, and as I vaguely understand it from skim-reading initial thoughts from last year’s festival ornithology his latest hymn wasn’t exactly wooing the faithful. ‘Treading water’, ‘lapsing into self-parody’ and ‘self-indulgent and pretentious’ seems to be the consensus, with this his mere seventh film in his forty year career. There is a long and illustrious history of filmmakers satirizing the hand that feeds, of pouring their scorn and derision on the industry and trappings of Tinseltown, its vacuous inhabitants and never ending thirst for success, prestige and power – think Billy Wilder in Sunset Boulevard, Minelli in The Bad & The Beautiful, Altman in The Player and more recently Cronenberg in Maps To The Stars. Given the sour subject matter and critical opinion it’s a miracle that the film managed a release at all, distributors were evidently nervous about the films commercial potential despite the presence of such a heavyweight auteur before the project, and his last film To The Wonder also didn’t exactly set the box office on fire. Nevertheless I kept a cautious eye on the release schedule, and was relived to see a paltry 7 days window release on just three screens in the capital, somewhat limited my screen9ing options in tandem with the schedule. At the end of the day it is a new Malick picture and such kinship means that a cinema viewing is absolutely essential, so I trundled over to the Curzon Soho which has had something of an internal facelift last week, to see what all the fuss was about. The result is quite a difficult experience to decouple and decant from thoughts to words, and a mere philistine might belittle Knight Of Cups as I did with a friend as essentially ‘the Sean Penn sequences in Tree Of Life stretched out to two hours’….
Christian Bale is the distant and slightly shambolic Ricky, a disillusioned Hollywood screenwriter adrift on the turbulent seas of life. Rootless and encumbered he embarks on an internalized quest to shatter the spell of his dismay, embarking on a series of dalliances with a sextet of alluring women: the spirited Della (Imogen Poots), his ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett), exotic fashion model (Freida Pinto), an affair with the married Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), a Las Vegas sojourn with playful stripper Karen (Teresa Palmer), and a final interlocution with Isabel (Isabel Lucas) who sparks some succour for his ailing soul. Ricky is also grappling with a tremulous relationship with his faintly estranged father (Brian Denehay) and his substance recovery healing brother (Wes Bentley), seemingly the only settled segments of his life revolving around commerce and the fiscal seduction of the film business. The romances and interludes and in Ricky’s life are dissected into chapter headings culled from the Tarot, signalling the yearning for a spiritual epiphany which Ricky desires, as prowls a vision of Los Angeles as a jungle of glass, asphalt and chrome, and whatever Knight Of Cups may or may not be is it’s unquestionably one of the most beautifully photographed films of the year.
So, another film about an obscenely wealthy, enormously privileged white dude who has to endure the soul sapping prospect of fucking numerous hot starlets and attending a carnage of Hollywood parties and screenings, if you listen very carefully that’s the sound of the world’s first molecular scale violin playing for Ricky’s lamentable ennui. Well, that attitude seems to be the prevailing view of Knight of Cups which I’ll admit oscillates between tear inducing sublimity to wrenching boredom, Malick growing even more defiant in his rejection of classical storytelling modes, in this his most outlier and oblique film to date. The dramatic dilution has never more rigorously enforced, in standardised cinema scenes are arranged to erect some sense of a procession of events and incidents that build a character and their story, a tradition which this has been murdered at the altar of pure sensation and aerial affinity, as the film dances between location and whispered voiceover to provide a choir of yearning, seeking symbiosis. One section for example sees Ricky being robbed by two hoodlums in a frantic home invasion, a sequence which Malick pares back to about 30 seconds, drowning out the barked orders in favour of Ricky’s internal monologue. In other films that event would have been mined for all its threatening empathy, in Knight Of Cups it’s a mere aside, an empty gesture which forms another indifferent thread on his tapestry of life. Judging by the credits he’s exhausted no less than three editors on this film, parsing the incredible volume of material his improvisation technique produces , and he must be the only director working within the A list who manages to get his films funded, made and distributed without having any sort of script or storyboards to anchor the actors and performance. In terms of the closest film that this reminded me of was Fellini’s 8 1/2 which takes a similar approach to life as carnival, as a pandemonium procession of empty experiences that serve no nourishment for the soul, with a conflicted and apathy stricken protagonist wandering through Emmanuelle Lubetski’s glorious, celestial spanning environments.
Regardless of the final perceived pretension of the film which may rest in the eye of the beholder I just have to admire any filmmaker who is pushing at the envelope of his own, uniquely formed aesthetic, with Malick is pushing his style even further into the purlieus of paradise. The production anecdotes reveal a completely liberated filming experience, with no confining structures such as marks or dialogue shackling the performers to any sort of plot, but those ideological underplays can provide a clear roadmap any comprehension on the part of the viewer. The film frequently abandons sequential time and instead adopts visual representations of consciousness, with a total absence of what could be classed as a purely functional shot, an insert to convey story information say, as instead every sequence holds some symbolic or representative power which although overwhelming in places can occasionally link together to evoke a truly divine drive. Narrative, the absolute unimpeachable nucleus of classical Hollywood cinema is pushed to the margins in favour of emotion and internal debate and that is radical as modern Hollywood seems to offer. The steadicam work hangs slyphlike on the borders of a scene, unwilling to penetrate, instead surefootedly interrogating the internal empathy of the sequence and the thoughts and yearning of consciousness’s trapped in these frail physical vessels. However regenerative these techniques there is no question that the presentation of women is problematic, through the whispered voiceovers and lingering shots of Ricky’s conquests the only figure to emerge with any coherent personality is Blanchet as his semi-estranged ex-wife, unless the film is subtly suggesting that this is how Ricky sees his numerous paramours, as inscrutable creatures placed aloft some lofty pedestal to be worshipped until their novelty is spent. At the very minimum this will require future viewings and as a fan I did enjoy this experience, despite some of the problems inherent in the approach. Overall it’s not been a particularly banner year so far, of the films I elected as the most exciting for the Menagerie in 2015 Hail Caser was terrible, The Reverent and Midnight Special were fine but not particularly potent, and now this screening which I defiantly enjoyed but am sympathetic to the naysayers complaints of Malick disappearing up his own magic-hour sunset. He shoot his upcoming picture Weightless back-to back with Knight of Cups with some of the same cast, so we shall soon bear witness of this remains the direction of travel. At one point ‘No one cares about reality anymore’ is asserted by one of the degenerate denizens of Hollywood, a fine apropos of our times, but Malick’s sacred saturated solution won’t be for everyone with Knight Of Cups squatting in the minor arcana of his transcendental travelogues;