Terrence Malick is up to something and one hopes the sum is better than the parts. His latest film, released on DVD/digital in Australia this week just weeks after its US cinema release, will test the patience of those who professed undying love to him after Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line.
Knight of Cups appears to be part of an unofficial triptych of existential relationship dramas that began with the polarising The Tree of Life in 2011 and followed with the enigmatic To the Wonder (2012). Or it could be part of a four or five-film epic with this year’s Weightless combining with his coming documentary Voyage of Time, or even one big film.
At least that’s what some of the actors believe, some of whom, including Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale and Natalie Portman, appear in the two most recent films while Blanchett and Pitt narrate the documentary.
If there is a consolidation, Malick needs to bring at least some narrative discipline to it. Knight of Cups (M, Roadshow, 113min, $29.95) indulges Malick’s indiscipline with storytelling and characterisation against his painterly and philosophical ambition. Again. It is a two-hour meander that delivers its moments of beauty and clarity, as To the Wonder did, amid large dollops of pretension and ponderousness.
That pretension was inherent perhaps when setting the film in Los Angeles, with a side trip to Las Vegas, and making the subject a wandering screenwriter, Rick (Bale) who appears to have nothing going for him other than an allure to a staggering number of beautiful women.
Rick is lost and finds himself battling with his brother (Wes Bentley) and father (a striking Brian Dennehy) in incongruous settings — including LA rooftops — between staring skyward from laneways and drifting through the luxury of Los Angeles parties, resorts and cavernous office foyers. As far as flaneurs go, Paolo Sorrentino walking through Rome in The Great Beauty was more entertaining.
Six women pass through Rick’s aimless amble, each introduced as a title from tarot cards (the Knight of Cups card depicts a romantic hero following his emotions). Using tarot as a framing device should be warning enough but the leery male gaze at the beautiful, lightly drawn women (including Blanchett, Portman, Imogen Poots and Freida Pinto) is problematic. Malick may be riffing on love and beauty but largely his gaze feels as consequential as a Playboy shoot.
I was reminded of Peter Greenaway as the film began with a narration from John Gielgud and Malick’s lush, wide-screen composition filled the screen. His liberal use of music by from Edvard Grieg, Arvo Part and Claude Debussy elevates some banal visuals and narration.
But Greenaway, for all his faults, tends to use other narratives. It’s hard to fathom what Malick is up to. And, after this, sadly, it’s a little harder to care.