Sexuality, Reality, and the Sacramental in Knight of Cups

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“The artist penetrates the concrete world in order to find at its depths the image of its source, the image of ultimate reality.”

Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners

A few months ago, I offered a commentary on Terrence Malick’s film To the Wonder, outlining the relationship it depicts between the love of eros and agape, as described by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Malick’s most recent film, Knight of Cups, initially appears to be structured along the same lines, as it revolves around a Hollywood screenwriter and womaniser named Rick who, like Neil in To the Wonder, has intimate relationships with numerous women. However, Knight of Cups is more concerned with accepting the reality of creation, and how sexuality fits into that reality. As William Randolph Brafford says in First Things, it is a film in the service of the culture of life, by which he means that “the family open to receiving new life stands at its center.”

Fantasy and Reality

Early on in the film, Rick’s first lover, Della, tells him that “no one cares about reality anymore.” This is one of the key lines of the film. There run throughout Knight of Cups seemingly innumerable images of unreality, such as mirrors, computer screens on which boys play video game sports (instead of, you know, real sports), clouds which come and go, copies of the Eiffel Tower and the pyramids in Las Vegas, and an Elvis impersonator. Eventually, all of the images of unreality culminate in a giant toy city, filled with mechanical cars speeding through its tracks. The city, standing in for the world, is without any meaning of its own, or at least that is what the characters believe.

This viewpoint is expounded upon by Tonio, another womaniser. He believes that there are no principles in the world, only “circumstances.” It is up to us to give those circumstances meaning and to act as we like. The meaning Tonio chooses is hedonism, and so he is the image par excellence of a figure Albert Camus describes in The Myth of Sisyphus: the Don Juan, who flits from woman to woman, knowing that all of these “loves” are limited, that they are absurd, but still “exhausts their number.” This figure understands that no one fleeting pleasure will satisfy, but still pursues them. Tonio makes no pretence to being able to achieve an ultimate happiness, but gives himself over to pleasures he knows will never be fully satisfying; he says deplorably that women are like flavours, and sometimes he wants raspberry, but when he is tired of that flavour he wants strawberry, and he will continue searching out new flavours. He embraces the absurdity of his pursuit of sensuality.

Seeing as, for him, the world is hardly real, Rick often does not participate in anything going on around him. He does not pay attention to people speaking, and so their dialogue cuts out at odd moments. Though he is a screenwriter, he does not participate in an argument abut how to write a certain scene, and does not turn in one of his projects. Instead, he lives in a “little fantasy world” of casual sex where he can be whatever he wants, even a god, and if he is a god, he is free to create meaning out of the nothingness. In a fantasy world, he is a self-creator.

His disconnect from reality is best summed up in his drug use. One of his women, Karen, describes drug use as opening the “window of truth,” through which she sees what other people do not, and so she knows “so much more about the world than other people.” She identifies Rick as somebody who has looked through this window. Rick becomes what many voiceovers call a stranger, a person in a world he tries to transcend by drug use. Looking for a different world, he fails to acknowledge that the one he is in has any meaning or importance.

Unreal Sexuality

Much of Knight of Cups revolves around a dichotomy between the desert and water. We first see Rick standing alone in the desert, wandering in the wilderness. Rejecting reality, seeking to escape from it, and being lonely while at parties and while seducing women, his life is barren. The water, on the other hand, comes to represent immersion into sensuality. Swimming pools are an especially common image, containing naked women, models at photo shoots juxtaposed with plastic mannequins, and bacchanalian partiers. They are a locus of excess, shallowness, debauchery, and commodified sexuality. Rick lives between these two worlds of sand and water; indeed, his home is on the beach. He embraces worldly and sensual pleasures, but this immersion into the pool of decadence results in a barren life, and so the desert and the water are not simply opposites.

Knight of Cups symbolises the poverty of barren pleasures most bitingly in Rick and his wife Nancy’s pet dog. Nancy mentions in a voiceover that she regrets never having children. Shortly thereafter, we see their pet dog playing. Instead of children, they have a pet. The first image of a dog in the film is an underwater shot of a dog reaching out for its toy in the pool, the symbol of shallow sensuality. The dog and sterile pleasures are therefore immediately connected. As Brafford notes, the film’s “deep conviction” is that “love between a man and a woman is not fully itself until it is open to family life.” Rick does not allow himself to become so open, and therefore Nancy must instead settle for a dog. The dog embodies his failure to love his wife fully, thinking that his attraction to women, which he mistakes for love, will be fulfilled if he simply beds them for his pleasure. He does not accept the reality of the meaning of sexuality, that it is ordered not simply to pleasure, but to unity and life. His world of fantasy sexuality is unconnected to the reality that sexuality has intrinsic meaning. Della puts it most pithily: “You don’t want love. You want a love experience.” He wants the feelings of love without its responsibilities, and he wants a fake image of sexuality instead of its reality.

Reality Breaks Through

To choose pleasure as one’s priority is not a private choice that involves no one else. Rick ultimately becomes involved with a married woman, who becomes pregnant. She does not know who the father of her child is, and in despair, she aborts her child. The pursuit of pleasure must eventually kill its fruit, children, in order to preserve the fantasy, and this, more than anything else, demonstrates how divorced it is from reality, because if it were in harmony with reality, this pursuit could be peaceful.

The author Flannery O’Connor says, “I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is … implicit in the Christian view of the world.” O’Connor’s characters frequently become the victims of violence, which forces them to acknowledge that there are powers in the world that can affect them. In Knight of Cups, however, it is by committing violence that the characters come to realise their separation from reality, in that the fantasy needs to destroy reality in order to survive. The reality of sexuality cannot be ignored; its procreative dimension intrudes on the fantasy to the point that Rick can no longer pretend that he can be whatever he wants to be without facing the consequences of the real thing. He can act as if sexuality just brings pleasure, but in reality, it bears the fruit of new life. In order to continue acting as he does, the new life must be destroyed. Just because he does not acknowledge the reality of the procreative and unitive meanings of sexuality does not mean that there is no meaning, or that there are no consequences to its abuse. It unsettles Rick to discover that his actions in his fantasy world have consequences in the real world and that he and his lovers must commit violence to preserve this fantasy, and so when he finally comes to understand that reality endures despite his fantasy, he leaves that fantasy behind.

Similarly, near the end of the film, we encounter a priest who says that suffering binds us to a higher reality. This may be so, but firstly, suffering destroys the illusion of fantasy. It forces us to look at the world in which we live, to acknowledge that this world is important and that it has a claim on us, and to respond to it. The film juxtaposes the decadence of Hollywood life with the homeless of Los Angeles; when Rick wanders the studios, he can ignore the suffering of the people on the street, and because these studios where fiction is filmed is Rick’s home, he can ignore the people living on the streets as not part of his world. There is evidence everywhere that Rick’s fantasy is a lie, but he ignores all of it until he sees the evil for which he himself is responsible.

Escaping the World

Knight of Cups begins by quoting the allegorical Pilgrim’s Progress, which depicts a world charged with meanings that point to a higher world. Rick is similarly seeking a higher world but does so by trying to ignore and escape the world he is in. Instead, what he should be doing is paying close attention to the world he is in, which points to the happiness he seeks. The narrator, alluding to Plato’s Phaedrus, as Trevor Logan points out, says that in seeing a beautiful woman, a man remembers the beauty he used to see in Heaven. To quote The Jeweler’s Shop, by Karol Wotyla,Pope St. John Paul II, “In the Bridegroom’s face each of us finds a similarity to the faces of those with whom love has entangled us on this side of life, of existence.”

Similarly, the king in Christ’s parable in Matthew says, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” In loving those around us, we love God. Finding a so-called “higher reality” is done not by drugs or detachment, but by careful attention to this world, and loving that which is in it. Essentially, Knight of Cups sees reality as sacramental, as something tangible that makes intangible grace present. Rick disdained and mistreated those around him (and is especially reproached for his unkindness to Nancy) for the sake of his pursuit of God. Rick is not wrong to look to other people in order to find something higher, but the way he objectifies them and consumes them for his pleasure, which he confuses with beatitude, is wrong. The challenge for Rick is to be in the world but not of the world, and to see the reality of creation as essential to the encounter with God while not simply mistaking pleasure for epiphany

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