Beautiful yet unapproachable, opaque and occasionally incomprehensible, "Knight of Cups" shares its personality with its self-absorbed Hollywood characters. Which makes it business as usual for its unconcerned writer-director, Terrence Malick.
From "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven," his earliest films, through the more recent "The Tree of Life" and "To the Wonder," Malick has moved with unbending firmness further and further away from conventional (and comprehensible) narration. So much so that the people closest to him can't even be bothered to pretend otherwise.
"It's gotten to a point where you really can't explain Terry's movies in words, you simply have to experience them," Sarah Green says in the production notes, with fellow producer Ken Kao adding, "For those looking for a different kind of film, be prepared to have a truly personal experience." Really.
If this kind of language and philosophy sounds familiar, it's because it echoes the ethos of 1960s experimental and avant-garde filmmakers like Bruce Conner, Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas, who treated linear story like the benighted spawn of the devil.
But unlike those directors, Malick works with major stars (Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman among others in this case) and makes feints and stabs at the outlines of a plot, though the language and the situations themselves are for all intents and purposes improvised.
It also doesn't help things that what little story Malick allows himself tends toward the pretentious and self-important. "Knight of Cups" (named for a card in the tarot deck) delivers us to the brooding company of an enigmatic, largely silent Hollywood type named Rick (Bale) who spends more time searching for meaning in his life than a Gauloise-smoking French existentialist.
The only thing that keeps "Knight of Cups" from terminal artistic overreach as it follows Rick around town is the knockout cinematography of three-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki, who does superb work showing us contemporary Los Angeles in a most magical way.
Rick, who dresses mostly in black and drives a vintage convertible tailor made for lithesome young women to unwind in, is said to be a screenwriter, though the closest we get to see him actually working is conversations he has with a series of agents who say things like "we'll double your quote" and "let me tell you about you."
When not occupied with agents or equally tormented family members like his brother (Wes Bentley) or his father (Brian Dennehy), Rick spends his time living the lush life to an extent actual screenwriters rarely do, going to "La Dolce Vita"-type Hollywood parties and cavorting with platoons of all-too-willing female accomplices. Rarely has sexual license looked less appealing.
In addition to these party types, we see brief fragments of relationships of different sorts Rick has with no fewer than six women. These include but are not limited to Della (Imogen Poots), a wild child who sometimes favors pink hair; Karen (Teresa Palmer), a lively Las Vegas stripper; the married Elizabeth (Portman); and Helen (Freida Pinto), a model who's tired of "wreaking havoc in men's lives." (Who wouldn't be?)
And don't forget the ethereal Isabel (Isabel Lucas) or Nancy (Blanchett), Rick's ex-wife, a doctor whose specialty seems to involve, of all things, leprosy. It's symptomatic of the tone of "Knight of Cups" that even Blanchett, ordinarily the most sure-footed of performers, has trouble finding a convincing reality to play here.
The thing about "Knight of Cups" is that any attempt to even provisionally summarize it on paper makes it sound much more understandable than it is. The film is absent anything resembling a conventional scene, consisting instead of fragments, slivers, snippets of recorded memory linked by uninspired voice-over of the "I spent 30 years not living life" and "Where did I go wrong?" variety.
Rescuing this film from total unwatchability is, as noted, the luminous camerawork of Lubezki, who has the uncanny ability to make even familiar L.A. locations like the Malibu pier, Abbot Kinney Boulevard, the Sunset Strip and Chris Burden's LACMA lampposts look like they've never been photographed before. Those who get bored (no names) can pass the time trying to identify the film's myriad local locations.
Because, as beautiful as it looks and as avant-garde as its techniques may sound, "Knight of Cups'" notion of the destructive, soul destroying power of the movie business is as dreary and dated as those wild and crazy parties Rick is forever going to.
"Dreams are nice, but you can't live in them," the glamorous Helen tells Rick. That may be true for most people, but Malick has found a way to live in his. Too bad there's not room there for anyone else.
'Knight of Cups'
MPAA rating: R, for some nudity, sexuality and language
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Playing: In limited release