The steps leading to the altar of Terrence Malick are practically a safety hazard, cluttered as they are with assorted offerings of frankincense and myrrh, bouquets draped with sashes that shout “Good job!” and perhaps a virgin sacrifice or two. Critics and certain moviegoers love him that much, which explains why Sunday’s screening of his latest, Knight of Cups, playing in competition here at the Berlin Film Festival, was the hottest ticket in town.
Festival badge holders queued up more than an hour in advance, even though the film was playing in the largest venue, the Berlinale Palast, which seats a zillion, or something like that. Expectations were high, as they always are with Malick, and even though I count myself as a skeptic, I had some rather positive — if complicated — feelings about the director’s last movie, To the Wonder, a story of fractured couplehood starring Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko. While the picture featured way too much ballerina twirling on Kurylenko’s part — what is it with Malick and twirling women? — I found its slightly raggedy (for Malick), scrapbook feel refreshing. I wondered if the picture might be pointing in a new direction for Malick, away from movies that take five or 10 or more years to get off the ground. To me, Malick’s films feel worried into a state of being rather than simply made, layered with so much visual and meaning-of-life obsessiveness that they render human actors practically unnecessary.
My optimism was misplaced. Knight of Cups is scrapbook-y, all right. Christian Bale stars as a disillusioned Hollywood screenwriter — really, is there any other kind? — who spends much time drifting about, alone and palely loitering. Tinseltown is his Belle Dame Sans Merci, the creature who has drained him of life: He goes to parties by the dozens, decadent ones, effortlessly attracting babes with his brooding emptiness — he has nothing inside, as he keeps reminding us in his raspy, relentless voice-overs. “See the palm trees? They tell us anything is possible. You can do anything, be anything. Start over.” I know we’re all supposed to look the other way when it comes to Malick’s stilted, sympathy-card dialogue, but hoo-boy.
There is, at the very least, some sort of story attempting to waft from the cracks of this tortured assemblage. We know that Bale's character — let's just call him “Bale” — has a less successful brother (Wes Bentley) and an inscrutable, demanding fireplug of a father (Brian Dennehy); another brother has died prematurely. Bale, empty Hollywood screenwriter type that he is, has also had many, many relationships and flings, providing lots of opportunity for good-looking actresses to flit across the screen — and in some instances twirl, though thankfully Malick seems to have gotten the memo about that. They include Imogen Poots, as a hipster babe in blurry eyeliner; Cate Blanchett, as a compassionate, selfless doctor who truly loves Bale even though he tortures her with his inability to communicate (or something); and Natalie Portman as a Married Woman who announces that she feels no guilt whatsoever for loving Bale as deeply as she does — and, oh, how she suffers when she discovers she is with child and isn’t sure who the father is. In one awkwardly staged love scene, she inches her bare toes into Bale’s mouth. The moment doesn’t quite work, but it’s refreshing to see something in a Malick movie that at least tries to strike some erotic sparks. He doesn’t always have to be such a Boy Scout.
What do these women see in Bale, who’s pretty much a scowl with legs attached? I don’t think we’re supposed to concentrate too much on that, and are instead expected to turn our attention to Malick’s trademark collage of imagery. (The cinematographer here is regular Malick compatriot Emmanuel Lubezki.) As you might guess from the title, Malick borrows plenty from the tarot deck, including an assortment of title cards (“The Hanged Man,” “The Hermit,” “The Moon”) used to introduce characters or themes. We also see Bale in the desert, looking forlorn, his hair blowing ever so gently in the meticulously art-directed wind. (Does Malick use a wind wrangler?) There’s some fiery planet stuff at the beginning, a reminder that we humans are one with the cosmos, or alienated from it, or maybe stuck somewhere in between. There is much walking on the beach, because water has the power to cleanse all souls. (Want to use that as a thesis topic? Please forward a usage fee of $3,500 to my agent at William Morris. Thank you.)
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Malick’s biggest visual reference seems to be perfume ads from the '90s. He is also, of course, capable of extending his gaze to various types of flora and fauna, especially when they handily fulfill his ideas about the evils of Hollywood hedonism. Almost all of the wicked city wimmin in Knight of Cups wear those terrible and ubiquitous skyscraper heels with the clubfooted platform in the front, monstrosities for which we have to thank Christian Louboutin. There are many, many shots of these beanpole ladies stalking to and fro in shiny little dresses and those ridiculous, extravagant shoes: Oh, the emptiness of their crass materialism and their addiction to Pilates and SoulCycle! Except they do have really nice butts. But no! We must avert our eyes from their gluteus evil, though it’s perfectly OK to gaze upon the diaphanous beauty of Blanchett and Portman, playing virtuous ladies who may have occasional moments of weakness but who would never, ever wear trendy, overpriced designer shoes from Fred Segal.
There’s something distastefully biblical about Malick’s view of women in Knight of Cups. Bale certainly goes through a lot of them in his own personal Day of the Locust. Have I mentioned the stripper, played by Teresa Palmer, whom Bale picks up while visiting what is clearly a neighborhood — as opposed to upscale — strip joint? There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, except as lovely as Palmer is, I couldn’t take my eyes off her onstage footwear: Instead of your typical vertiginous, shiny stripper platforms, she’s wearing clumpy sandals with a wooden clog bottom.
I stared in disbelief at those clogs, trying to invent a possible explanation for them: Maybe this stripper is a single mom, and after buying her cheap golden dancer’s bikini, she had only $20 left and needed to make a choice between buying food for her son (who also has a learning disability) or purchasing the appropriate plastic stripper shoes to complete her work outfit. Then I thought: Why am I doing all the work, trying to explain this stripper’s ugly and just plain wrong footwear? The problem, most likely, is that Malick has never stepped into a strip club in his life. But he’s seen them lots of times in the movies and knows that they’re cheap, tawdry places, indoor boulevards of broken dreams where even nice girls can sometimes end up.
That’s the way it is with Malick: Every experience is filtered through some rarefied aesthetic vision that has been color-Xeroxed, cut up and reassembled until it approaches something like life imitating art. It’s OK — to a point. It’s the filmmaker’s job to create an illusion, and if it’s a Malick’s-eye view that stirs your soul, so be it. But with its woozy yet puritanical dream logic, Knight of Cups feels removed even from its own dippiness. Malick seems to like looking at women, and good for him. Our dirty little secret is that sometimes we like to be looked at. But watching Knight of Cups is like seeing a guy go to a strip club and tip the dancers with Zen koans instead of singles. Do we embarrass him that much? At this point, it may be a problem too big to fix. But please, at least give us the right shoes.