With Knight of Cups, Terrence Malick achieves the sense of stylistic ossification that many accused his last feature, To the Wonder, of embodying. The difference is that the earlier film was still, in its own rather elemental ways, tied to actual flesh-and-blood characters on screen. In Knights of Cups, by contrast, Malick seems to have finally decided to do away with humans altogether. In some ways, this is the filmmaker’s 8 ½: a feature-length riff on his own creative frustration, with Christian Bale as his directionless stand-in, a screenwriter suffering from spiritual ennui. But then, of course he’s bored and frustrated: He lives in Hollywood, after all, and if works like The Day of the Locust and The Player have shown us anything over the years, what else is Hollywood but a cesspool of decadence and empty hedonism? To this ostensibly mind-blowing insight, Malick adds a fascination with landscapes and architecture that recalls Michelangelo Antonioni’s similar obsessions in the unofficial trilogy of L’Avventura, La Notte, and L’Eclisse—though Emmanuel Lubezki’s roving camerawork and the poetically hushed voiceovers on the soundtrack scream Malick through and through.
In fact, Knight of Cups is full of Malick’s standard tropes, right down to its many twirling female love interests. But even in To the Wonder, the tropes still carried a genuinely meaningful charge: Olga Kurylenko’s frequent gyrations in that film expressed—rapturously, to these eyes—an openness to fresh experience in an unfamiliar environment that would tragically curdle into disillusionment as the film went on. No such sense of, well, wonder exists in this film’s soulless world: Lubezki’s camera may dolly in and out of various settings and character close-ups, but this time around such gestures are bereft of meaning, as if there was nothing left to discover beyond the surface. For once, all those pretty pictures Malick slathers on the screen are merely that: picture-postcard snapshots, and little more. And then there’s the voiceover narration, in which Malick seems to plumb new depths of platitudinous banality: “Dreams are nice, but you can’t live in them,” says one of Bale’s handful of female love interests, and toward the end of the film, he himself laments that “so much love inside us never gets out.”
Perhaps the shallowness of Knight of Cups is, in fact, deceptive, befitting a world obsessed with appearances, a hollow spiritual core that Malick seems to be trying to exorcise by sheer dint of applying his ecstatic style and ramping up the philosophical ruminations to near-mythic levels. After all, surely there’s a reason that the film occasionally features a Ben Kingsley voiceover reciting passages from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, that classic of religious English literature: Malick is trying to infuse this world with a dignity that it doesn’t have, right down to breaking the film down to chapters with such portentous tarot-card-inspired titles as “The Hanged Man,” “Judgment,” “Death,” and so on. All of Malick’s visual and structural heaving, though, can only do so much to disguise the film’s utter conventionality: the dully moralistic way his strip-club and dance-hall montages, for instance, are scored to Hanan Townshend’s mournful electronic droning in order to emphasize the corruption of it all. But as spiritually destitute as his upper-class characters were, even Antonioni evinced an interest in something like actual human experience. Malick, instead, is so busy trying to force a religious quest on his ciphers that he ends up nullifying any deeper resonance his protagonist’s quest for existential meaning might have had.
Berlinale runs from February 5—15.