If you’ve ever seen a film by Terrence Malick, director of elusive films such as The Tree of Life, The Thin Red Line, and Days of Heaven, you know about his ‘Twirling Women.’ Malick’s fragmented female characters are often depicted dancing over pristine natural backdrops with a whispered voiceover; they can be seen as feelings and symbols more than actual characters. Malick is a spiritual and sensual filmmaker who rarely casts ugly people in his films, but the obscuring of Malick’s characters and narrative is by no means a gendered phenomenon. The male figures in his films are equally elusive.
Since To The Wonder premiered a few years ago, many critics who praised Malick’s early films have derided his recent works as self-parody. Knight of Cups, his most recent masterpiece, has undoubtedly been the most divisive film of the year so far, with defenders crowning it as the pinnacle of his experimentation while many detractors label it ‘misogynistic’ and ‘male privilege garbage.’
Centering on Rick, a screenwriter in Hollywood, Knight of Cups is a variation of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, a Christian allegory about an everyman who leaves the City of Destruction for the Celestial City, representing a shift in mindset from the material to the eternal. Rick is similar to the protagonist of The Pilgrim’s Progress; he embarks on a journey from the synthetic reality of Hollywood hedonism to the spiritual connection with an immaterial deity. Malick’s film is overtly metaphysical in its thematic concerns, considering the implications of materialism, but it is also his most overtly political film, particularly in terms of its representation of women.
Like many great filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese, a feminist analysis of Knight of Cups must consider context, particularly how the film’s themes impact the representation of women. Merely pointing out the inclusion of the female body as aestheticized is not a sufficient condition for misogyny. By these standards, some of the influential feminist artworks from the late ’60s and early ’70s, like Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills or the performance art of Valie Export, would also be considered sexist. The meaning of the work impacts how we view the role of women within it.
By either omitting that Knight of Cups is a deconstruction of the male gaze, or worse yet, by being completely ignorant of it, many ‘takedowns’ of the film adopt a misguided feminist criticism against the film. In Glenn Kenny’s piece for his blog Some Came Running, he says, “The sexism in Knight Of Cups is real ‘I can’t be bothered to make these women anything more than pretty symbols’ stuff. Kind of inexcusable, I thought.” Similarly, a piece at The Huffington Post by Karina Eileraas, a professor at USC who admitted she hadn’t even seen the film, argues her case for not wanting to see the film based on excerpts from others’ reviews.
In her article, she writes: “Women as spectacle and eye candy are here to take us to higher ground, so to speak. And so, female audiences are perpetually expected to turn a blind eye to humiliating flashes of women on screen in order to empathize with a male protagonist who graduates from sexual indulgence and existential angst to a more enlightened state of being.”
Throughout this clickbait article masquerading as a thoughtful backlash, Eileraas makes the same mistake as Kenny.
In the context of Bunyan’s allegory, the formal presentation of the images and the development of Malick’s cinematic language, it’s clear that not a single instance of Knight of Cups is meant to be taken literally. Instead we are immersed in Rick’s subjectivity, which leads to a complete abstraction of conventional narrative. This is crucial to how we interpret the representation of women. The women are not objectified by Malick’s camera but by Rick’s gaze. Through the director’s unique marriage of form and content it has been difficult for many to see this distinction.
However, Knight of Cups is quite frankly overtly feminist, a film that actively deconstructs the male gaze of advertisements, Hollywood film, and the libidinal desires of its central male character. One of Rick’s lovers, to whom we are introduced wearing a phony wig in the reflection of a pane of glass, is represented through the sexualized idea with which Rick perceives her. Inside his mind, she is merely a façade, a put-on used to please his gaze. Over voiceover this woman declares about Rick, “You don’t want love. You want a love experience.” Images and the pictures in the heterosexual male’s sexual fantasies are not real women; they are synthetic reproductions. They reduce female identity to a flavour, something to be tasted then discarded.
Similarly, later in the film, Rick is at a strip club where an adult dancer tells him she can be whatever he wants. She is malleable. She can orient herself to any of Rick’s fantasies. Contrary to what Kenny and Eileraas argue, the women in the film are not devices to serve the male protagonist. But, rather, through his womanizing tendencies, Rick becomes unsatisfied with his decadent lifestyle. He sees the need to journey toward the Celestial City.
As Malick’s form has become progressively more abstract and experimental, it’s been easier for critics to read his films under the same presuppositions they would use to evaluate any other filmmaker. But Malick isn’t like any other filmmaker — he is a visionary. He uses the evocative and spiritual potential of the cinema to challenge our materialistic and hedonistic impulses, including the insidious male gaze.