Knight of Cups
The first journalist to stand up at the press conference for Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups (screening in Competition) asked the actors present (Christian Bale and Natalie Portman) for clarification on what the film was “actually about”? Two further questions from other members of the press were addressed, in all seriousness, "to the director" – who wasn’t present. He never is.
Such states of confusion are exaggerated. Knight of Cups has no straightforward narrative and barely any scripted screenplay bit it’s clearly an exploration, via sight and sound, of a state of being: a subject close to Malick’s philosophically inspired heart (he studied and translated Heidegger). In this case, that of Rick (Bale), a Hollywood scriptwriter at the height of his fame and marketability, facing an existential crisis: “How did I get here?”
Malick pulls his customary registers. Above all, the use of voice-over: quoting spiritual manifestos from John Bunyon’s prison-penned The Pilgrim’s Progress in John Gielgud’s iconic recording of that text to the 104th psalm, to exhortations and questions that Rick and others ask themselves. There’s a soundtrack merging Elgar and Grieg with Hanan Townshend’s majestic symphonic score. And then, there are DP Lubetzki’s endless variations on the visual themes of water and stone. From party pools to the ever-rolling ocean and from desert rocks to the stony magnificence of LA’s skyline, the environment created is both eternally fluid and testament to human endurance. Fantastic visions of Hollywood partying imply a critique of the dream factory, distracting men capable of much profounder reverie.
Rick is the pilgrim moving through these spaces in chapters based on tarot cards – including the Knight of Cups himself, who signifies change, particularly if it’s romantically inspired: many of the scenes that pass through Rick’s mnemonic consciousness involve the beautiful women (ex-wife Blanchett, former lover Portman) and other relationships through which he sought definition. Ties to a strict father-figure and brother (both recurring Malick tropes) are also part of the personality mosaic.
If just reading about this puts your back up, there’s little chance that you’ll enjoy Malick’s (re)creating of past experiences in search of present-tense enlightenment. Fans will feast on the engorged and sumptuous marriage of life’s linearity with cosmic content. Detractors will bemoan the complete lack of conventional narrative, of character differentiation and substantiation – and of tonal variety. The jury will have to make its choices. So will the viewer.
“When water moves, the cosmos intervenes” is an early comment in Chilean director Patricio Guzmán’s own voice over accompanying overwhelming images of water arriving on our planet in El Botón de Nácar (The Pearl Button) – this year’s only Competition documentary. He localizes this connection in the symbiosis developed over centuries between the Western Patagonian tribes and their watery homelands, and reflected back into space via tribal lore. Shored by images of water in myriad galactic and planetary forms, we sink like stones into primordial acceptance: cradled, comforted, awed. And then horrified. Into this setting, Guzmán brings a first narrative of disappearance: of irretrievable cultures represented by the pearl button signifier, paid to the indigenous Jemmy Button (ca. 1816-64) to leave Patagonia and entertain western civilization, losing his identity in the process. Spanning a large and not always solid arc, Guzmán moves from these tribal destinies to the disappearance of Pinochet victims (also explored in his Nostalgia de la Luz), focusing on the 1,400 people killed, bound and weighted before being dropped into the Pacific. Water has a memory, is what Guzmàn (and others: Joseph Brodsky) maintain. Suffering threads the universe on a liquid trail. Daringly and impressively construed, Guzmán’s voice in the off adds authority to the universality of the metaphor – but doesn’t quite compensate for its occasional obscurantism.
There’s yet more voice-over in French director Antoine Barraud’s Le Dos Rouge (Forum, Portrait of the Artist), which begins and ends with a mother (Rampling) meditating on the artistic preoccupations of her son: a noted French director in search of inspiration for a new film on “the monstrous”. French film director Bertrand Bonello plays a fictionalized version of himself as hovers over Hermaphrodites, twins, cross-dressers and the work of Arbus, Miro, Bacon et al, unraveling a private fascination with grotesque metamorphosis, role playing and gender experimentation. He finds, however, that immersion in the transformative process manifests itself in private changes: a nasty red rash on his back. Accepting this mark as artistic stigmata, he delves ever deeper into psychological netherworlds that threaten to engulf him. Entertainingly ironic, this film on exploitative artistry is kept afloat above all by the ever-quizzical Bonello, who comes closer and closer to the conclusion that art itself could be the monster: a Medea in search of the spectacular, and perfectly capable of eating her children in the process. Wisely limiting the use of voice-over to undermine, not substantiate a personalized view of connectivity, Arnaud’s subject matter is not new, but refreshingly presented.
Knight of Cups screens Feb 11, 9:30; Feb 13, 15:00; Feb 15, 13:00 (all at Friedrichstadt-Palast).
El Botón de Nácar screens Feb 9, 13:00 (Zoo Palast); Feb 9, 18:00 (Friedrichstadt-Palast), Feb 15, 10:00 (Haus der Berliner Festspiele).
Le Dos Rouge screens Feb 10, 13:45 (CineStar 8); Feb 11, 21:00 (Kino Arsenal); Feb 14, 22:15 (Cubix 9).