A Hidden Life (2019)

A discussion that has cropped up once again in political and media circles has been around “antifa”, and every time it happens a lot of people with the same wearied tone have to explain it’s not an organisation, it’s an ethos, a motivating ideal, a praxis and a shared struggle: it is just short for “anti-fascist”. Such struggles can take an explosive, active form, and there are no shortage of World War II movies to illustrate that (though most are Hollywood stories of heroism against the odds). Terrence Malick’s most recent film instead deals with the internal contortions, of morality and faith competing with self-preservation, and the way that just these simple acts of resistance can carry their own dangers. The only thing that “antifa”, such as it is, calls us to do is to resist fascism. All that I can hope is that to continue to do so is something which does not lead to the outcome in today’s film, but as some of the world’s largest countries have taken an active turn towards demagoguery and fascism, that is starting to seem rather more perilous.


I haven’t really connected with many of Malick’s films since The Thin Red Line (and certainly not the last few), as he’s progressively loosened his narrative focus in preference for impressionistic movements. However, with A Hidden Life, he seems to have reined this extravagance in a bit (though the stylistic tics are still very much evident), not to mention choosing a setting and theme that seems more fitting to his particular style. Of course, there’s still plenty of voiceover, used more as another layer of sound than to convey any specific information, and he takes the interesting decision to have the film in English except where perhaps the words are less important — background chatter, bureaucratic invective, in which case it’s in German.

It’s an odd film, though, that bathes this story — of Franz (August Diehl), an Austrian peasant in the early-1940s, who grimly resolves (with an at times wavering, but nevertheless increasingly bitterly held, sense of moral clarity) to defy military tribunals and not speak the ‘Hitler oath’ — in a certain sort of beatific calm, which makes sense given he was after all beatified not so long ago. There’s little sense of the actual war, and perhaps in 1940-1943 (when the film is set), it hasn’t particularly reached the alpine Austrian setting of St Radegund or even the Berlin prison he’s shipped off to later. There’s one chilling scene where the village’s mayor inveighs against the dangers of immigrants and foreigners, despite clearly having none in his midst, which obviously remains current, but otherwise this is very much focused on Franz and (almost equally) his wife Franziska, grounding their story in the community and (as you might expect from a Malick film) the glory of the natural world. It’s not even quite as overtly spiritual as some of his more recent films have been, though given Franz’s Catholic faith and his later beatification, it is obviously imbued with that throughout.

I liked it, and didn’t even feel the running time once the movie started to hold me. It’s shot with some oddly distorting lenses, and the camera operators must all have been children given how close to the ground the camera seems to be most of the time, but Malick’s impressionist excesses aren’t so much on show or are perhaps less jarring when not juxtaposed against Hollywood or indie music backgrounds.

A Hidden Life film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Terrence Malick; Cinematographer Jörg Widmer; Starring August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Michael Nyqvist, Jürgen Prochnow, Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruno Ganz; Length 174 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Friday 17 January 2020.

Knight of Cups (2015)

By now we surely all know what to expect from a Malick film, and if you’ve seen To the Wonder or any of his output of the last 10 years or so, Knight of Cups won’t present any new narrative challenges. But for those who haven’t been keeping up and look at the cast list thinking this could be good should bear in mind that there is no plot to speak of; rather one could say there’s a series of questions that we as viewers and Christian Bale as the screenwriter protagonist Rick, seek answers to. The title and the film’s structure is taken from the Tarot deck, and we are in a sense led through a reading for Rick’s title character. The film is dominated by Bale; all the other actors are very much in the background, glimpsed in passing, as fragments of the conversation Rick is having with himself, into which Malick’s camera seems to inveigle itself. As ever, the camera floats around, lingering behind Bale’s shoulder or viewing him and those he interacts with from a low-angle, bound to the earth, looking up at the sky. There’s no dialogue to speak of: if we see two characters interacting, their words are faded out, to be replaced by an interior monologue, whether of one of the other characters or of Rick — this aspect of Malick’s filmmaking has been in place since almost his beginnings. So, narratively it’s dense and it’s opaque and it’s difficult to get drawn into, but it does allow for some moments of beauty and fascination. Yet the associative editing (two years in post-production, we’ll recall) leads the film out on obscure tangents. At this point terms like ‘self-indulgent’ and ‘pretentious’ seem entirely unequal to what Malick is doing, though they’ll no doubt be trumpeted by plenty of critics. For myself, I don’t find this work as successful as his earlier To the Wonder, largely because Bale’s Rick seems so empty a character, not unlike the protagonist of Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere (2010). Yet, after all, the issues that Rick is grappling with are fundamental ones: how to re-connect with others after the death of his brother and the havoc this event, only elliptically alluded to, has wrought on his remaining family (other brother Barry, Wes Bentley, and father Joseph, Brian Dennehy) and his relationship with ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett).

Knight of Cups film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Terrence Malick; Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki; Starring Christian Bale, Wes Bentley, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Brian Dennehy; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at Omnia, Rouen, Sunday 6 December 2015.

To the Wonder (2012)

I think it’s fairly well understood that Malick’s films are an acquired taste, especially the more recent ones. After The Tree of Life (2011) — which on balance I was not a huge fan of — comes this new film, and both of them (more than previous Malick films) eschew traditional scenes of dialogue, often cutting away before someone speaks or cutting to them just after it seems as if they’ve spoken. On the rare occasions when characters are shown speaking, the sound is generally faded out before they finish, let alone any response is given. Swift editing imbricates flashes of future and past time, an impressionistic bricolage of images. Which all goes to make it a film of fleeting experiences, of connections made at a level other than speech. Of course, there’s still the poetic voiceover, this time primarily in French (also Spanish and Italian, and very little English), which perhaps makes the tone of it less intrusive to English-speaking audiences than it can seem in such films as The Thin Red Line (1999, my personal favourite of Malick’s films). But you wouldn’t expect a Malickian voiceover to explain anything: it remains at the level of laconic, gnomic utterances.

The film is focused on Olga Kurylenko, as a free-spirited French woman who falls in love with an American, moves to Oklahoma for a while, then moves home. That’s basically all that happens in the film, at a plot level. As a character, she’s thinly-drawn: she has no apparent job. The camera constantly follows her as she walks, sometimes runs, ahead, spreading out her arms, twirling, pulling her friends, her lovers, the camera, us, behind her. There are three other, essentially supporting, characters here. Ben Affleck is her love interest, playing some kind of environmental scientist, so his primary relationship is with nature, and there are fleeting scenes showing the damage being wreaked on it by people. The lovely Rachel McAdams plays a local woman who works on a farm (this bit is a bit less believable), so again she works with the land. Javier Bardem plays a priest, perhaps the character who is most often shown trying to communicate, which often takes him to more human scenes of dereliction and poverty.

But the film doesn’t really feel as if it’s about these characters as people, so much as what they represent. There’s the contrast between Europe (Mont Saint-Michel on the coast, the city of Paris) and the new world of Oklahoma. The faith that seems centred at Mont Saint-Michel is set adrift in the huge expanses of Oklahoma; it’s only in the enclosed spaces of the prison and the confessional booth that Bardem’s character connects with his calling. But then again the outdoors in this new world is always filmed imbued with a beautiful radiant golden light, where it’s glum and a bit oppressive in Europe.

If those are just some feelings I get from the film, thinking back upon it, then that’s because it’s a film primarily of feelings. It certainly won’t be for everyone, but it made me happy.


CREDITS
Director/Writer Terrence Malick; Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki; Starring Olga Kurylenko Ольга Куриленко, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 24 February 2013.