“Where did I go wrong?” asks a man in voiceover as he nibbles the ears of two beautiful Asian girls, en route to a poolside party in downtown LA. For some, of course, the question prompted by such a scene is not “where did I go wrong?” but “where can I find parking?” and only because the man is played by Christian Bale does the line stand any chance of landing. One of our gruffest, most brilliant actors, Bale mostly growled behind a mask in “The Dark Knight”, exfoliated with narcissist’s precision in “American Psycho” and mortified his flesh repeatedly for roles in “The Machinist” (as a paranoid factory worker) and “The Fighter” (as a recovering crack addict). In short: when it comes to disdaining pleasure, Bale is in a class of his own. He approaches his roles like a martyr holds his hand above an open flame. Someone should cast him as St Augustine and have done with it.
In Terrence Malick’s new film,“Knight of Cups”, he faces his stiffest test yet. The film is Malick’s answer to Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita”, with Bale in the Marcello Mastroianni role of sleepwalking prince, adrift in the pleasuredome of modern Hollywood. We get nightclubs and pole-dancers and ketamine parties and, for those of us who had the director pegged as American cinema’s most ethereal transcendentalist, the unlikely but surprisingly convincing sights and sounds of a Terrence Malick rave. “All those years spent living the life of someone I didn't even know,” laments Bale, wandering from party to party wearing the expression of a man beset by harpies. “I suppose that’s what damnation is, the pieces of your life not coming together.”
This has the sound of an artistic crisis posing as a spiritual one. Malick’s films have been getting more and more abstract, and “Knight of Cups” courts the same deliberate incoherence as last year’s “To The Wonder”: fragments of dialogue; a heavenly multitude of narrators; a series of diaphanous beauties – Imogen Poots, Cate Blanchett, Freida Pinto, Natalie Portman – whispering promises of damnation or deliverance, while the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki weaves his steadicam like a daydreaming Keats. For a full hour I clung to the principle that if an actress trailed her fingers in a pool, she was most likely a siren leading Bale to his doom, but if she ran ahead of him on a beach, she was more like Mary Magdalene offering to wash away his sins. But then along came Portman, who did both, and I was again stumped.
The New Yorker’s film critic Pauline Kael used to poke fun at the art-house’s penchant for what she called “Come-Dressed-As-The-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties”. “Knight of Cups” is Malick’s Sick-Soul-of-America Party. The challenges it faces are therefore twofold: how to take on a culture that is even more committed to pleasure than Europe’s, and in a medium not renowned for its ability to turn its nose up at temptation? That’s one thing the Christian right nailed in its characterisation of Hollywood as a modern-day Babylon, except that it’s not Hollywood that is ungodly, but the medium itself: the worship of graven images is pretty much the movies’ raison d’être. “I like gods,” Jack Palance’s producer tells Fritz Lang in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Contempt”, “I like them very much. I know exactly how they feel.”
The idea of Hollywood as spiritual desert is nothing new. From Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” and Vincent Minelli’s “The Bad and the Beautiful” to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Birdman”, there has been no shortage of films lining up to warn of the spiritual rot lurking beneath the industry’s shimmering surfaces, and no shortage of industry vets turning the art of self-damnation into a form of self-aggrandisement – hey, check out the size of my fall from grace. What’s surprising is not how many people think this about Hollywood, but how many people in Hollywood think this about Hollywood. Sure, film-making is a deal with the devil, but have you seen the size of Satan’s residuals?
Malick aligns with a more European tradition. He’s an austere spiritualist in the mould of Robert Bresson and Carl Theodor Dreyer, whose career floats on its own aura of chic: actors want to be in his work without necessarily understanding it. The depiction of the Babylon that is modern Hollywood in“Knight of Cups” looks uncannily like an advert for the fragrance one should wear while braving it. Billboards at dusk, Malibu at dawn, shimmering pools and scantily clad girls: these are the clichés of the American industrial-entertainment complex, given only the slightest of inflections by a film-maker who has always had a sweet tooth for beauty, and here seems to be passing off his own insubstantiality as Hollywood’s own. One day someone should make a movie about how rewarding, fun and spiritually nourishing it is to make movies. Except nobody would believe it.