Santa Barbara, with its picturesque movie palaces mere minutes from the beach, feels like an idyllic remnant of Old Hollywood. Fitting, then, that the centerpiece of this year’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival is Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups, a parable about life’s transience posited as a rumination on Hollywood vainglory. Opening the film with a quotation from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Malick makes immediately clear that his relatively plotless narrative about a Hollywood screenwriter’s (Christian Bale) various romantic encounters is, in essence, about humanity’s efforts to regain a lost paradise from which we’ve all been expelled. As allegory, it works on both a literal and metaphorical level, one being meaningless without the other, as it’s precisely that tenuous connection between those two planes that represents Malick’s insistence that only there, in the interstices between the material and the spiritual, does life possess purpose and meaning.
As Bale’s Rick navigates the superficial world of Hollywood in search of tangible realities and fixed truths, Malick both revels in and recoils from the illusory nature of cinema, where all are merely players playing their parts on an ever-revolving stage. Like many a Renaissance thinker, Malick is concerned with revealing the true self hidden beneath our social/performative exteriors, and Hollywood, as the world capital of illusion, is the perfect setting for this quest. Bale plays Rick as a detached observer around whom the world’s agonies and ecstasies revolve, seeking to regain his lost innocence through the various women who pass through his life like shadows in a dream, themselves fallen angels who lost their wings and fell into their earthly bodies. As spirit made flesh, they embody both man’s fall from grace and the seed of his salvation by holding out the possibility of earthly love. For Malick, our postlapsarian world always carries within it the promise of paradise.
As with his previous film, To the Wonder, Malick employs a contemporary setting to explore uniquely American questions concerning the nexus between public duties and private desires. Always civic-minded, the director’s first five films used historical settings to explore similar issues of personal freedom and social responsibility, and as such his singularly impressionist, nostalgic vision can seem better suited to the past than the present. There are moments when the story seems to buckle under the portentous weight of its occasionally bloated metaphysical enquiries. But they’re buoyed by Emmanuel Lubezki’s exquisite cinematography, which captures the elegant bleakness of southern California’s empty desert landscapes and L.A’.s stark cityscapes, an austere mélange of pristine skyscrapers and destitution (as in a brief sojourn through the city’s skid row). The film never fails to find an apposite visual representation of man’s struggle between his fundamental solitude and his metaphysical yearnings.
Such modernist externalization of interior states often conveys Malick’s worldview better than the dialogue, as exemplified in the words of one of the film’s many playboys, played by Antonio Banderas: “There are no principles, just circumstances.” The work’s juxtaposition of the beautiful and grotesque, luxury and poverty, captures life as a Felliniesque carnival, at once sad and life-affirming. As a stand-in for Malick himself, Bale is the stillness at the heart of all of this profane and cosmic chaos, which flows around him like water, which is present in almost every scene of the film. The effect can be both meditative and soporific. While Knight of Cups is unlikely to win the filmmaker any new fans, acolytes will find enough to love in his exploration of his traditional concerns in a novel context.
Mark Osborne’s The Little Prince frames the classic Antoine de Saint-Exupéry children’s book, the story of the journey of a boy from a distant planet to Earth and back again, within a contemporary narrative about a lonely little girl (Mackenzie Foy) who befriends the kooky old aviator (Jeff Bridges) living next door to her and her helicopter-parenting mother (Rachel McAdams). He tells her about his encounter with the little prince in a desert many years before, prompting them to journey to the big city to find the eponymous hero, where he now works and resides as Mr. Prince, a hopeless misfit incapable of fitting in with the “grown-up” world of his new surroundings.
The segments recreating the original story at the film’s center are stop-motion collages of various materials whose physicality exudes an otherworldliness well-suited to the source material and its peculiar magic. But the framing story is less successful. Throughout, we see the world of grown-ups through the little girl’s eyes, where everyone is either a businessman, accountant, or teacher—a credible enough projection of the perspective of a single businesswoman’s unhappy only child. But the sentimentalist expression of the blanket misery of the grown-up world—a confusing show of anti-white-collar populism—grows increasingly maudlin.
Mr. Prince is the film’s sole blue-collar worker, a custodian and pathetic pushover whose world is a nightmare of accounting offices and white-collars workers marching to and from their workplaces in a fascist rhythm, like the proletarian workers from Metropolis. This condemnation of the white-collar world feels pointless given that the film is unconcerned with acknowledging its preferable alternative. Mr. Prince’s spinelessness makes him a nice foil for the little girl, a plucky heroine of unfaltering grit and determination, but causes one to lose sympathy for his earlier exploits as the little prince. While the scenes with the little prince and the aviator are whimsically charming, they fail to make up for the framing plot’s trivialization of the source material, undermining the original story’s beguiling, tragic quality.
The Santa Barbara International Film Festival runs from February 3—13.