Film: Terrence Malick – from transcendence to cliché

Lush imagery: Christian Bale and Cate Blanchett in Knight of Cups

Terrence Malick’s films are known as much for their philosophical ambition as their painterly style. When the two work well together, as in The Tree of Life (2011), the combination can hint at transcendence. When they don’t, you end up with something like Knight of Cups (★★, 15, 118 mins), Malick’s tale of a troubled, hedonistic LA screenwriter, Rick (Christian Bale), who moves restlessly through a series of relationships with different girlfriends before finally accepting the responsibility of fatherhood.

Although Knight of Cups is gorgeously shot by the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, its visual charm quickly becomes part of the wider problem: the film’s slavish devotion to the surface of things. We are relentlessly bombarded with lush imagery, from Rick’s indigo shirt billowing in the wind to long shots of LA glittering by night. The women in Rick’s life (a starry bunch that includes Cate Blanchett, Freida Pinto and Natalie Portman) are all knockout beauties, and their emotional dramas unfold in spacious, minimalist apartments worthy of The World of Interiors.

Between them the female characters diligently represent every cinematic cliché of womanhood going, from a sexily impulsive, free-spirited Goth girl (Imogen Poots) to an angelic lap dancer (Teresa Palmer) with a hotline to spiritual wisdom. The women are frequently filmed scampering bare-legged as wind-blown hair whips across their faces. Sometimes they grow angry or cry prettily.

Bale cruises through this tempestuous sea of femininity wearing a small, enigmatic smile. It emerges, thinly, that his angst has a source: one brother who died young, another who is careering off the rails, and a father bruised by grief. None of this is adequately explored.

As the film wore on, watching it felt like being cornered in a fashionable bar by a handsome bore who wished to talk at length about himself in urgent yet impenetrable terms. By the end, I really couldn’t wait to get away.

Evolution (★★★, 15, 82 mins) directed by Lucile Hadžihalilović, is a disturbing, surreal little film set on an unknown island populated only by women and pre-pubescent boys. The chill seeps in on several levels, not least because the boys are habitually clad only in swimming shorts while dipping in and out of what looks like freezing water.

Nicolas (Max Brebant), an observant boy of 10, glimpses a dead body in the sea. His strange mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier), who is forever either cooking him up some vile, squirming broth or feeding him a mysterious medicine, says he must be mistaken. But is she really his mother – and why are the boys being hospitalised and operated on?

The film is content to raise atmospheric questions rather than fully develop a plot to match its innate talent for unease. Still, many of its images have stuck like stubborn algae to a wet stone, hard to scrub from the mind’s eye.