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'The Child That I Was':
Knight of Cups

Pierre Berthomieu


Seven films already, and Terrence Malick never repeats himself. This new work caps an involuntary trilogy after his two preceding films, The Tree of Life (2011) and To the Wonder (2012), but displaces the themes, forms, places. Knight of Cups is the story of an existential crisis experienced by Rick (Christian Bale), a successful screenwriter. Haunted by family crisis, the death of a brother, the figure of the father; drifting through drunken receptions and illicit, private clubs, given over to the illusion of fun: this semi-autobiographical character of Rick crosses the film in a drug-filled stupor, carried along and betrayed by his body, tortured by the sensation of existential emptiness.


Long admired (especially when he’s not making films), Malick today disarms the public, who wish they could have greater empathy for his heroes, and are disturbed by the silence of the actors, the seemingly old-fashioned, spiritual themes, the torrent of shots and voice-overs. What they could find here, in place of a ‘relatable’ guy, whether raging or innocent, in fact corresponds to a very American temperament: naïve in its quest for purity, didactic in its search of generosity, fragmented by an overflow of ideas and sensations, spectacular in its love of cinema.


Despite this love for celluloid, the labyrinth of experience is also expressed, this time around, using digital means (GoPro, Red, Alexa) in order to capture an individual’s vibrations via an appropriate, experimental texture, keyed to the mood of each situation. Filmed in wide angle, overturned or populated with grotesque creatures, the modern world suddenly resembles an unknown planet through which our hero stumbles – with his ultimate wish to get out of the tunnel and head for a New World.


Where To the Wonder was lyrical, Knight of Cups is more liturgical. Reference to the Tarot divides the narrative into chapters and provides the film’s title. The Knight of Cups is an artist character, in search of love, ready to let himself be seduced, or bored. In the packed musical tapestry, two pieces, two leitmotivs guide the spectator and give the impression of an ancient tale: Wojciech Kilar’s Exodus and Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia. The former, a tragic Bolero, makes us feel the endlessness of this quest; while the latter grasps the majesty of its strong moments and fermata. Both pieces of music share an archaic model that is recurrent in Malick: ecstatic melody, modality, repetitive hymn, unison or polyphony.


The result is a moral poem that sanctions the waste of lives, and easy success. From Los Angeles to Las Vegas, a parade of top models, orgies, fashion images, waves of naked female bodies who are more or less anonymous: this new Malick explores a Dionysian carnival where pleasured faces end up evoking death-heads. This vast Vanity is built upon Christian schema that serve as its pillars. An allegory drawn from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress offers an introduction, inviting us to see in Rick an Oriental Prince suddenly plunged into the illusion of carnal love. The Vanity does not merely condemn the kaleidoscope of earthly beauties; it also celebrates them.


In our present, Malick seizes the ineluctable pertinence of the spiritual question for a noble conscience, amidst the abundance of cultural shards, and the progressive loss of meaning entailed by the lethargy of our assailed senses. This is an art that possesses the intelligence of myths-to-come, and which reactivates the value of Mystery. The pervasive disdain it has met seems to us (alas) quite predictable, but unjustifiable.


The material’s silence – which is the source of its drama – feeds the impression left by Malick’s films: spiritual for some, and for others a testament to the desertion of the divine. At once ecstatic and depressive. Cities are empty avenues, monuments of metal, lifts/aquariums/mausoleums. Amidst Kubrickian corridors comprising immense, desolate galleries, Rick is found in a cage at the centre of an orgy, and Las Vegas is called … a stinking dungeon. The lovely striptease artist Karen (Teresa Palmer) embodies an illusionistic moral: all simulacra replace a forgotten, ideal reality. The actor-seducer Tonio (Antonio Banderas) embodies the empiricist adage: no rules, only consequences. Water, an obsession of this filmmaker, appears everywhere: water imprisoned in human fabrications, the free water of oceans, water which revives … all before a silent Rick, who staggers like a zombie for the whole film.


The human body opens up the range of pleasures, but it is also weighed down, troubled by nostalgia for flight. Thus, on one side, the series of winged figures: mobile, unknowable women. On the other side, the underwater shots, childhood refuge or hallucinatory view of the swimming pool’s floor where the hedonist Tonio walks, he who sullies the water with the weight of the civilised body, the body of illusion. Like The Pilgrim’s Progress, Knight of Cups has the semblance of a dream. Rick himself calls it a theatre of the mind – father, brother, beloved women move about there, silent or furious, round and around each other. Rick, this sub-Gatsby, orphan of the vibrant, green light, discovers the strangeness within himself (I live with an unknown) and vainly seeks an illusion of existence for others (let me tell you about yourself). Like in The Last Tycoon, an inaugural earthquake comes to wake him up. A monumental, melancholic, modern wandering – European like Antonioni, American like Hopper, Fitzgerald or Sydney Pollack.


Around Rick there dances a rondo of female portraits, sometimes traced in just a few shots, erotic tableaux, intimate mini-films. Hardened by disappointment, Nancy (Cate Blanchett) is the most alive: a doctor devoted to lepers, marked by a mournful generosity. Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) is the heroine of an adulterous romance: in just a few shots, the spectator experiences the ardour of desire, doubt, an event (she falls pregnant), and the farewell to passion (the sublime shot of the household door re-shut, which says everything). Between the unknown women without clothes and the sublime (even oddly masculine) fashion models, there also parades the fashion ingénue, Della (Imogen Poots), driven by bourgeois idleness and anxious coquettishness; or the hypnotic model, Helen (Freida Pinto), contemporary version of the Oriental seductress who ultimately forecloses mystery. Most fugitive of all, the luminous, silent Isabel (Isabel Lucas) extends the young, phantom, female ‘guide’ glimpsed in The Tree of Life: spiritual mentor when she shows the way in the desert, and an epiphany when she descends naked into the pool, a liberating angel who disrupts the pervasive, puritan antinomy of flesh/spirit. After To the Wonder which wove sweet choreographies of female bodies, Knight of Cups celebrates these beauties, the temptation of which it seems, at one moment, to condemn – but it ends up as an ode to woman-eroticism-energy.


The infinite subtlety of the film lets us sense the melancholia lodged inside its every moment. To love, and to feel the sadness. The search for love, and the difficulty of expressing it. The belief in fashioning one’s energy from the repetition of the same, old mistakes. To see the way out, without being able to reach it. Intermittences and paradoxes grasped all at once through the ceaseless collage of shots, words and sounds.


This poetry is a resistance and a provocation within contemporary cinema. It speaks a nostalgia for a world full of spirit(s). But also, in one or two key shots, a nostalgia for the aquarium of magical fauna that lit up childhood. We forget to our detriment this essential quest in Malick – those eyes which dream up watery nymphs here, or dinosaurs and a levitating mother elsewhere. The meanders of Knight of Cups belong to those who have opened their eyes for the first time to a world that, through habit, they usually screen out. This childhood nostalgia is, as well, amplified by a sorrowful energy aimed at reconstructing enchantment – despite that sad trail of lost virginities which constitutes existence.



This review appeared in Positif, no. 658 (December 2015), pp. 9-10. Reprinted with permission.


from Issue 6: Distances


Original French text Pierre Berthomieu, December 2015.
English translation Adrian Martin, December 2015
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.