Is it now a requirement when a new Terrence Malick film is released that certain expectations should be kept in check? Since nabbing the Palme d’Or back in 2011 with Tree of Life, the reclusive director has become a sort of parody of his own work. His repetitious motifs and utter spiritual sincerity provide plenty of ammunition to all the naysayers out there and his latest, while a great deal better, does little to buck that trend.
[Knight of Cups](movie:357110) will easily have the die hards cooing and the haters, well, booing but isn’t that all getting a little cliché. Despite it’s success, there were boos amongst the crowd at Tree of Life’s screening at Cannes, and the reception for To the Wonder in Venice was- rather deservedly- much colder. And yet the crowds still crushed into the Berlnale Palast yesterday. But the question must be asked: was it excitement running through the crowd, or was it blood they smelled? Ever since its announcement, the film always looked like the hottest ticket in town, and the electricity in the theatre was palpable. So it seemed that the extremists, on both sides, already had their mind made up. For the rest of us, however, there is plenty to enjoy.
Firstly, as the trailer suggested, Knight of Cups is really quite spectacular. Elevated to baroque levels of grandeur by cinematographer Emmanuelle Lubezki’s near symbiotic relationship with Malick’s style, the film plays out as another free flowing visual poem, similar in many ways to those last two outings, but with such richness of imagery as to carry you along. The opening minutes alone are a feast. Ben Kingsley’s rich narration introduces the viewer to a wash of startling imagery: multiple format films of partying and debauchery; a raw, violent piece of avant garde performance art; and soaring images, taken from the ISS, of our lovely home planet.
Kingsley’s gravelly narration is the first welcome departure from what we’ve come to expect. Regrettably, however, it’s quickly replaced, once again, with all that softly whispered nonsense. Then it's a cut to a wide open plain; Christian Bale, shirt blowing in the wind. The classical soundtrack soars.
The plot, as you might expect, is difficult to get your arms around. Bale plays Rick; a wealthy film industry something-or-other, floating through all the superficiality of life in L.A., as he seeks out beauty or truth or whatever. In a series of non linear flashbacks, the film charts his romantic history- an enviable list of the most glamorous women in Hollywood, each with their own chapter, named from the deck of tarot cards: Frida Pinto’s model is The Tower; Cate Blanchett’s ex-wife is Judgment; Natalie Portman’s married woman is Death. We're also shown the relationship with his father and brother; in which we learn that Rick lost a second brother some years ago. Loose existential narration stings us along. As ever, little is explained.
The enjoyment here, of course, hangs on whether the viewer plans to cling onto the railings or simply let go. And the current, it must be said, is strong. Lubezki is like Charlie Parker gone Bird, lost in a state of masterful free-flow. His weightless, ever-curious camera-work delivers some of the most stunning images of Vegas and L.A. ever to be caught on camera alongside fresh energetic GoPro shots and some mad stuff on the side. At one point we see dogs in Hawaiian leis and floral shirts, shot underwater, diving for toys. it's often breathless and startling and, for the most part, it works.
When the repeat offenders rear their heads- vacuous narration, confused looking actors walking rather aimlessly about- it merely works to break the wonderful spell. But when Knight of Cups clicks, the beauty really is overwhelming. At one point Rick visits an old friend. The man regals him with tales of his recent trip to Tibet (gross, I know), and quotes the teachings of a monk he had met. He says:
Pay attention to this moment, I just teach this moment.
Bear heed to that advice when watching the film, or any of Malick's recent work for that matter. It might be all you need to know.