Terrence Malick studies have circulated with considerable attention over the past two decades. Prevailing scholarship attends to Malick’s curious qualities, as an almost mythic filmmaker, his reticence to comment on his work, his intriguing personal history as a burgeoning philosophy scholar, and the strong poetic aesthetics of his films. While many commentators have addressed his work in terms of religion or philosophy, there has yet to be a significant study of Malick in terms of French Impressionist film theory. This is all the more interesting, considering that his style has often been deemed “impressionistic,”1 without further critical study of this term. As such, the following article endeavours to situate Malick’s work within a French Impressionist critical framework – specifically Jean Epstein’s considerations of photogénie. As an acolyte of the French Impressionist film movement, Epstein may appear to be a disparate figure in relation to Malick, but further study of his famous conception of photogénie proves to be both a provocative and illuminating critical perspective in addressing Malick’s aesthetics with a fresh perspective. While first exploring Epstein’s theories on photogénie by addressing his silent film Cœur fidèle (A Faithful Heart, 1923), I will examine one of Malick’s more critically divisive films, Knight of Cups (2015), as an opportunity to reappraise the project, in terms of its artistic, photogenic qualities.  

Photogenic Strategies and Concepts in Jean Epstein’s Cœur fidèle

Photogénie is difficult to define, not least because of Epstein’s impassioned and romanticised descriptions of the terms. As Sarah Keller notes, photogénie is “a notion usually accompanied by apologies for its abstraction, anagogy, or outright inexplicability.”2 Herein, I will focus on the connections Epstein makes between photogénie and gestures, close-ups and movement. This loose framework will be deployed to consider how photogénie functions in key sequences in Epstein’s Cœur fidèle and later in Malick’s Knight of Cups.

Epstein associated photogénie with the capacity of cinema to reveal or transform qualities of a person or object. By Epstein’s theoretical proposition, photogénie describes things (e.g. physical phenomena) or beings whose “moral character” or artistic value is elevated by its cinematic rendering.3 In linking photogénie’s transformational qualities with movement, he states, “only mobile aspects of the world, of things and souls, may have their moral value increased by filmic reproduction.”4 In his 1921 essay “Magnification,” Epstein suggests that the aptest structure for revealing photogénie involves expressive punctuations embedded within rhythmic imagery. He writes: “the photogenic is measured in seconds. If it is too long, I don’t find continuous pleasure in it […] Until now, I have never seen an entire minute of pure photogénie.”5 Thus, it is my contention that temporary pauses situated within rhythmic editing and/or montages can reveal intelligible moments of photogénie. Such expressions can enable a sense of immediacy to experience a character’s interiority; and despite its brevity, photogénie leaves a vivid impression upon the viewer. 

Just as light, movement and rhythm were the conceptual tools of pure cinema – advocated by French Impressionist film theorist Germaine Dulac6 – visual arrangements juxtaposed with emotive and punctuated character close-ups were key organizing features involved in photogénie. In Epstein’s passionate appeals for its artistic value, he argues that “The closeup, the keystone of the cinema, is the maximum expression of this photogénie of movement.”7 Epstein best elucidates this filmic tension of gesture, close-up and phrasing: 

Even more beautiful than a laugh is the face preparing for it. I must interrupt. I love the mouth which is about to speak and holds back, the gesture which hesitates between right and left, the recoil before the leap, and the moment before the landing, the becoming, the hesitation, the taut spring, the prelude.8

The close-up, as a cinematic gesture, highlights the physical gestures of the performers as their silent, incomplete expressions within fragmented narrative scenes signal revelatory, photogenic material.

Epstein’s enthusiasm for the close-up was bound to the way it revealed physiognomic characteristics which, in turn, were able to communicate a character’s interiority in the absence of words. Within the immediacy of expression, there is a preamble or state of becoming which signifies photogénie. He writes: 

Muscular preambles ripple beneath the skin. Shadows shift, tremble, hesitate. Something is being decided. A breeze of emotion underlines the mouth with clouds. The orography of the face vacillates. Seismic shocks begin. Capillary wrinkles try to split the fault. A wave carries them. Crescendo. A muscle bridles. The lip is laced with tics like a theatre curtain. Everything is movement, imbalance, crisis.9

Here Epstein articulates the power and depth of emotion that can be found simmering beneath the surface of an actor’s face. As an intensifying device, the close-up is a crucial tool for photogénie, according to Epstein, because it “limits and directs our attention,” enabling viewers to focus on what is becoming within the frame.10 Through close-ups, one can read the minute registers of expression through physiological phenomena: the welling of the eyes; wrinkled eyebrows; facial tics and nervous gestures. These intimate dimensions of an actor’s visage function as “a conduit for complex expression.”11

For Epstein, the “fleeting effervescence”12 of photogénie also depended on editing strategies. He claimed that in a conscious effort to “capture the immediacy of time in the present tense,” and through editing rhythms that accentuate a photogenic notion of becoming, cinema could formulate images to produce a “pregnant moment of presence that punctuates and interrupts the standard, continuous, linear flow of time.”13 The gestures within a shot thus combined with cinematography and rhythmic shot relations to create the aesthetic experience he championed. Epstein advocates for expressive cutting that provides a quality of feeling, and through this form, he presents heightened aesthetic content concerning the images themselves, and the subjects and objects within the frame. Epstein’s strategies thus privilege a type of associative editing that relies on emotionally expressive arrangements of imagery through cinematic technique.

For Epstein, Cœur fidèle is a crucial work that showcases photogénie through rhythmic editing and close-ups. In this film, Epstein utilises a melodramatic scenario, emotionally charged montages and tight framings to denote his characters’ internal feelings and the “urgency or inexpressibility of love.”14 The narrative concerns Marie (Gina Manès) and her downtrodden admirer Jean (Léon Mathot) who are driven apart by the violent actions of local thug Petit-Paul (Edmond Van Daële). Photogénie can be most exemplified in Cœur fidèle’s famous and visually dynamic carousel sequence. In this sequence, Marie is coerced by the brutish Petit-Paul to the fairgrounds against her will, although she longs to be with Jean, who searches for her desperately. 

During the sequence, a petrified Marie is placed in contrast with the inebriated Petit-Paul and his gleeful, histrionic behaviour. In one instance, adorned with wind-swept streamers, Petit-Paul casts confetti in the air, ornamenting himself and Marie in this affair, cruelly redolent of a forced wedding. As they are seated on the carousel, the sequence is composed of busy frames. We see balloons trembling in the breeze, rides, swings and whirling machinery. The constant movement in the shot is combined with an array of cinematic tools such as dizzying point of view (POV) shots, fades, superimpositions and rapid, disorienting cuts. Epstein creates a stunning collage that both disrupts and rejects the traditional continuity organization of space and time, but does so in a manner consistent with his notion of photogenic mobility.15 Kirtland argues that the sequence highlights the tensions of motion and stasis throughout and Epstein positions this quality of aesthetic tension as indicative of photogénie.16 For Epstein, photogénie is also “like a spark that appears in fits and starts,”17 implying that non-causal disruptions in space and time within a film allow for a stronger sense of immediacy, and, therefore, revelatory photogenic moments. The visual excess in this staccato display of machinery and subjects through turbulent shot variations develops a sense of anxiety in the characters while also eliciting the audience’s experiential nervousness. 

Epstein uses the close-up as a key device in framing photogénie, as situated in accelerated montage imagery and this is evident in Cœur fidèle. During the swift succession of images, we see several close-ups. Two prominent photogenic moments include Jean’s shocked expression upon discovery of Marie’s capture and Marie’s look of dismay at her situation. These are important instances of photogénie, as Epstein uses close-ups to highlight crucial points of emotional interest as Jean and Marie are shown reacting to their respective emotional distresses. These close-ups linger for a few seconds during a chaotic stream of images, granting us a moment to pause and dwell on the characters’ reactions. In terms of photogenic moments, the close-up can therefore be viewed as a device for revealing the interiority of Epstein’s characters, within a network of moving images.18 Epstein’s conceptions of photogenic mobility thus entail privileged moments situated in a motley collection of images through cinematic strategies of kinetic objects, camerawork and editing. These moments often register as highlighted close-ups that pause from expressive montages.  

Revelation and emotional distress issued via photogenic close-up with Jean (Léon Mathot) in Cœur fidèle.

Gina Manès’ close-up reveals a complex, underlying and emotional interiority for Marie in Cœur fidèle.

In 1921, Epstein wrote that an “aesthetic of the kaleidoscope requires constant mobility,” and this is something that he relates to both modern poetry and cinema.19 Visualizing this disorienting imagery as analogous to heightened subjectivity, Cœur fidèle illustrates a kaleidoscopic aesthetic through its accelerated images, hectic frames, visual abstractions and confusing editing strategies. Concerning this sequence, Keller writes: “It is one of the centrepieces of the film’s visual experimentation, with subjective shots from the perspective of the ride, blurring fast-motion of movement, fast cuts between ringing bells, the horses on the merry-go-round, swings, and crowds.”20 Mirrored by the “amorphous rotational force”21 of the carousel, Marie feels trapped and immobilized by her circumstances, which generally follow melodrama conventions.

The carousel sequence parallels the final scene of the film, which shows the reunited Marie and Jean on the same ride. By the film’s conclusion, Petit-Paul has been shot by Marie’s neighbour (Marie Epstein) and the couple is finally liberated from his menace. However, the dramatic events that brought them to this (otherwise cathartic) moment have left an indelible traumatic impression on the couple. Rather than re-presenting the maze of quick images from the early scene at the fairgrounds, the final scene fixates on the couple seated, with the world spinning behind them. Respective close-ups show a seemingly content Marie, while Jean is noticeably shell-shocked. While most commercial drama films would celebrate the triumph of love in its denouement, Epstein runs counter to melodramatic tropes by deflating expectations through Jean’s reaction, thus destabilizing the relationship.22 Christophe Wall-Romana contends that Cœur fidèle thus eschews the catharsis of a more conventional denouement of romantic reconciliation, and instead reflects on the emotional turmoil of traumatic events imprinted on the characters.23

Jean’s countenance and close-ups of him reveal an expression of dejection, creating another moment of discernible photogénie. His silent facial expressions gesture a despondent feeling that is further accentuated by the increased length of shots and the gyrating movement that exists in the spinning background. Keller notes the ambivalence of their respective close-ups and questions the film’s conclusion of their amorous union.24 She argues that while “the camera corroborates the destabilization of their happy, ideal love […] it also isolates the characters through the cut, effectively separating them.”25 Although the kinetic quality of the earlier sequence is no longer evident, Epstein uses double exposure with a POV perspective of an actual kaleidoscope, overlaying an image of Jean and Marie, to directly visualise the unsettling feelings which still exist for Jean. The tensions aroused between the fixed frame of the camera, the rhythmic revolution of the ride and Epstein’s conscious insert instil a cumulative sense of emotional movement, photogenic mobility and an undercurrent of internal disquiet that pervades the closing scene.  

We find these pregnant, or privileged moments of photogénie, to be pauses in montages that exhibit subjective close-ups to convey internal feelings. The perceptible moments of photogénie in the first carousel sequence denote mutual feelings of anxiety for Marie and Jean. However, in the final sequence, the emotional implications are more ambiguous. Nevertheless, Epstein’s photogenic mobility functions to foreground an emotional character interest, despite the ambivalence of such feelings. Photogénie is rooted in this associative quality, which accounts for much of its slippery discourse. This disorienting, rhythmic framework that houses photogenic moments can be further applied to Malick’s work to interpret his aesthetic strategies. As I will argue, Malick’s films, specifically Knight of Cups, also create photogénie through close-ups, narrative pauses, reflective moments and flashbacks. 

Impressions of Epstein and Photogénie in Knight of Cups

As the central film of the Weightless trilogy, Knight of Cups is ripe with art cinema strategies and Impressionist aesthetics. The associative, photogenic framework of rapid editing and tight framings in this film reaches a point of intensified narration, with an encompassing montage style that overwhelms the story to the point where only interval points in the plot can be understood clearly. The film is cut like quicksilver and the viewer is instead invited to interpret Knight of Cups’ aesthetic strategies of cumulative image movement through its camerawork, editing, as well as its close-up framings, in order to make sense of the story, its characters and its interior interests. Malick’s fitful narrative provides a platform from which to distil Knight of Cups’ inherent, photogenic aesthetics through issues of kinetic imagery and close-ups. The sum of all this movement provides a cinematic form that mirrors the shiftlessness of Malick’s characters, as they navigate chaotic lifestyles that augur towards personal states of transformation. In framing photogénie through Malick’s rhythmic editing and juxtaposing close-ups, Knight of Cups can be reinterpreted and gauged via its Impressionist aesthetic strategies. 

The film follows Hollywood screenwriter Rick (Christian Bale) and the emotional toil of his tumultuous, bacchanalian lifestyle. Malick’s narrative frequently shifts in time and space between fragmented scenes and this echoes Epstein’s notions of photogenic mobility through non-linear editing.26 Rick repeatedly indulges in sexual exploits, drugs and garish parties. He also deals with existential concerns about his lifestyle and lack of personal fulfilment. The film consists of brief vignettes and story fragments. These are loosely connected by eight sections, each of which is titled by a Tarot card, such as “The High Priestess” or “The Hanged Man.” Each card correlates to one of Rick’s romantic interests or family members. Rick is notionally the “Knight of Cups,” a figure the Tarot characterises as romantic, idealistic and artistic (associated symbolically with the element of water).27 However, his impetuous impulses deliver him from noble pursuits, as he is easily distracted and tempted. Many of the film’s vignettes involve romantic trysts with various women. Some of Rick’s affairs are marked by sensual or carnal indulgence, while others entail more sincere romantic endeavours. Except for the final section “Freedom,” each of Rick’s relationships appear to fail in terms of commitment, romantic fulfilment and/or spiritual realization.  

The photogenic quality of Knight of Cups can further be discerned in Malick’s use of close-ups, which both complicate and reveal insights into the characters’ internal states. This comes across in a flashback during the “Judgement” section. Here, Rick and his former wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett) share a close-up frame showing them next to a glass window in their old home, where they silently withhold the internal conflicts between them. Her eyes lock onto him, waiting for a response, but Rick furtively avoids her gaze. The moment is not expanded narratively, and the audience is not privy to the content of their conversation, but Malick’s focus on their conflicted facial gestures, kinetic cinematography and quick cutting intensifies the drama of their tumultuous relationship. This framing is further postured around a montage of the couple both arguing and cavorting, exemplifying their impulsive behaviours along with the rapid editing. These stylistic features in Knight of Cups understandably evidence Epstein’s theoretical conceits. He writes: “The close-up is an intensifying agent […] The cinematic feeling is therefore particularly intense. More than anything, the close-up releases it.”28 These gestural qualities of close-ups aid us in further unpacking key emotional moments such as this, and their photogenic qualities.  

As Malick frames his close-ups within a network of brisk editing and montage imagery, he facilitates non-causal, associative rhythms as generators of emotional immediacy. Keller writes on behalf of Epstein’s use of accelerated montage and how its visual excesses serve the characters and the narrative.29 Christophe Wall-Romana also notes that photogénie entails a hyperactivity, which we can position within associative montages.30 In Malick’s impulsive narrative style, one can distil photogenic movement based on a gestural state or preamble of emotional fluctuation, which is constantly renewed in the film’s complex elision of time and place. Important close-ups will punctuate the rapid cutting, and Malick’s camera will often push in on characters’ faces to further signal these dramatic moments of personal reflection and realisation. Through this implicit sense of becoming for his characters, Malick remains elusive in disclosing direct answers to their psychological journeys. 

As an example, this comes across in a close-up of Rick visibly crying during the middle of the “Judgement” section as his countenance expresses regret for his neglected relationship with Nancy. In a brief respite from the elliptical cutting, the camera pushes in on Rick and follows him as he ambles through an empty room. His veins strain along his neck and cheek as he holds back tears. While Rick may not be ready to fully change his wandering attitudes, this moment does signal a realisation of the negative effects of his relationship(s). An aesthetic tension is evident in this photogenic instance for Rick and reoccurs at various points throughout the film. Through Malick’s episodic narration and rapid editing, the couples’ lives amount to a series of fleeting experiences that are inherently unstable. Malick magnifies a subjective interest by having the formal techniques of the film correlate to its content of emphasizing interiority. This cinematic approach also echoes Epstein’s aesthetic aspirations regarding fully realized photogenic imagery and his focus on the tension between mobility and stillness as a point of reflection,31 which invites a contemplative, rhetorical approach to better unpacking Malick’s film(s). 

As the episodic narrative continues through passing scenes, locations and characters, the ephemeral and kinetic quality of Knight of Cups issues other photogenic instances. Such occurs in the dramatic anecdotes and moments of photogénie involving Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), which compose the “Death” section of the film. Here, in the latter half of Knight of Cups, Rick appears to begin considering more of the effects of his lifestyle and its negative impacts. As the story transitions into “Death” a mysterious voiceover asks of Rick: “Are you afraid?” Rick’s affair with the married Elizabeth initially starts off promising, despite her infidelity to her husband. She expresses love for Rick, while he asks of himself via voiceover: “Have I found you? Can it be?” Rick’s performance is even more outwardly positive during a sequence where the couple visits the beach, as he smiles and swims in the ocean. However, Elizabeth’s facial gestures begin to contrast Rick’s, as split-second close-ups and rapid push-ins of the camera show feelings of nervousness for her. 

The emphasis on gesture measured in performances and in the gestural quality of elliptical scenes is useful for gauging these dramatic anecdotes and potential moments of photogénie. While Malick’s close-ups denote brief pauses from the editing, Epstein claims that “I have never understood motionless close-ups. They sacrifice their essence, which is movement.”32 Therefore, this editing movement through an ephemeral collection of scenes conveys impressions of gestures and feelings for Rick and Elizabeth as their relationship continues. There is a sense of ebb and flow to their physical behaviours around each other, which is visually illustrated by the pushing in and pulling out of the camera. Serious personal issues arise as we become privy to the fact that Elizabeth became pregnant and then had an abortion, as she was unsure of the child’s father. This takes a heavy toll on her which is manifested through camera movement that pushes in during a few close-ups of her, as she explains to Rick their situation. The section ends with a key close-up of Rick wandering through the desert. His face simmers with emotion as his neck flushes, skin creases and eyes well up with tears while he reflects on the effects of their relationship. The moment is not explained narratively, but it implies a feeling, which is conveyed through photogenic interests that centre on the mobility of the editing collocated with the stillness of the emphasized close-up. This instance of photogénie signals change for Rick, who ponders the need for genuine love, forgiveness and redemption going forward. These themes inform most of the personal interactions that ensue for the rest of the film as Rick appears to reconcile with his family and finds hope in a new love interest.  

The last section of Knight of Cups marks a period of transformation for Rick. This final section follows him and the peripheral, mysterious Isabel (Isabel Lucas). While Rick’s previous love affairs have ended in either tragedy or separation, there seems to be hope in this concluding love interest, if only because the “Freedom” title hints that Rick will be released from his cycle of affairs and personal questioning. Until this point, Isabel has appeared only briefly at discrete moments throughout the film in suggestive flash-forwards. In turn, this reinforces our awareness of a non-linear narrative structure and thus positions many of the splintered scenes in Knight of Cups as memory fragments. A.A. Dowd writes that the free-associative quality of the film presents the narrative as a “memory-collage of a story,”33 and this further points to fragmentation as a lens through which to experience character subjectivity. As a result, Joseph’s voiceover exhortations for Rick to “Remember” become even more poignant. As James Batcho argues: “Rick’s disassociating – a disassociation that is an act – is dilated to the point where love becomes a series of losses that can barely be felt.”34  Batcho adds that within a narrative of recollection, Rick’s “memories are so broken and drug-addled that he cannot find himself within his re-imaginings.”35 Thus, the “Freedom” section indicates that Rick is moving beyond his tumultuous experiences and into a period of life that is promising and emotionally fulfilling.  

In a key moment during this section, there is a punctuated, photogenic close-up of Rick with a field of wind turbines spinning over his shoulder. Framed in the twilight desert landscape, this brief image harbours a wealth of photogenic interest. The physical machinery and fast cutting provide a cumulative sense of movement for the viewer. While housed in a framework of photogenic mobility through non-linear editing, the transformative quality of this moment is also signalled by Joseph’s encouraging voiceover, imploring Rick to find the happiness he once knew in himself, as well as elliptical scenes with Isabel and memories of  Nancy which ensue in the following images. Malick’s close-up shows Rick facing downward, with eyes closed and a pensive expression on his face. He looks less perturbed than before and appears to be regaining a sense of peace within himself. His silent visage and the quick editing that surrounds this close-up contribute to an interior movement through formal techniques that outline an essence of photogenic mobility. Rick’s revelatory close-up is utilised as a “conduit for complex expression”36  and this instance of photogénie functions as a turning point for Rick, as he reconciles with his father (this occurs through fragmented scenes just before this) and enters a fulfilling relationship with Isabel. The formal movement reinforces our impressions of Rick’s conflicted and emotionally turbulent life as the titular Knight of Cups. Simultaneously, it gestures towards his new beginning. The close-up of Rick is onscreen for only a few seconds before the montage resumes. In this brief moment, there is a photogenic tension between stillness and motion, echoing Epstein’s propensity for juxtaposing close-ups with accelerated cutting. In its brevity, this accelerated image is consistent with photogénie’s characteristic movement via the film’s editing strategies which emphasize kinetic movement and short close-ups as pauses to signal crucial moments of interiority. Significantly, Isabel is seen alongside Rick exploring the wind farm, seconds before this particular image. This moment also echoes similar images in the carousel sequence of Cœur fidèle.

Photogénie issued through close-ups and rapid cutting illustrate the interior weightlessness and personal transformation for Rick (Christian Bale) in Knight of Cups.

After this moment of photogénie, the formal techniques of the film begin to alter, as Rick settles into a new way of life. “Freedom” presents Knight of Cups’ denouement with scenes of Rick and Isabel in a desert (oasis) home. At this point, the shots lengthen and the flux of imagery begins to resolve. As the concluding love interest, Isabel arrives as a strange character in the narrative. Her face is rarely visible from a frontal vantage point, close-ups often focus instead on the back of her head and when she is onscreen, usually she is physically moving and running/twirling/dancing past the edges of the frame. While oddly distant, in ways where other characters were not, Isabel is surely distinct from the other women in Rick’s life. She is almost an ethereal figure and the lack of facial close-ups which have commonly emphasized the turmoil in the lives of Rick’s prior paramours distinguishes her as separated from this type of emotion. While not registered through tight framings which surround the other characters, it is suggested that Isabel is a gentle and benign figure, and her sequences with Rick in their new home (as well as an insert of a baby crawling on a sunlit deck) augur that Rick has moved past internal ennui and has finally found personal fulfilment. The final images of Knight of Cups show GoPro footage of Rick swimming underwater (emphasising the element of his Tarot card is, precisely, water), a camera tracking through empty desert spaces at magic hour, tracking through his empty flat, and finally, Rick leaving L.A. and driving into the desert at dusk. A closing voice-over from Rick implores himself to “Begin,” and the quiet scenes that conclude Knight of Cups allude to this sense of transcendence for Rick.  

A photogenic framework is suitable in gauging the interiorities of Malick’s characters, with Rick at the centre. Impressions, memory fragments and episodic flashpoints of his life are detailed through an intensified continuity style which uses a free-ranging camera, close framings and rapid editing to provide visual expressions of Rick’s internal feelings through an aesthetic tension of movement and stasis. Moreover, instances of photogénie exist throughout Knight of Cups and issue ephemeral moments of intense, personal interest, wherein characters reflect on their interior conditions. By focusing on facial gestures through close-ups, Malick’s photogenic techniques register the subjectivity of Rick and the other characters, as they experience an underlying emotional movement in response to their chaotic lifestyles. The kinetic quality of Knight of Cups’ non-linear narrative provides visual illustrations that associate with characters, and Malick’s close-ups furnish gestures of magnified, interiority which Epstein accounts for in his passionate writings. Thus, the audience feels the meandering, jumbled quality of the narrative as we feel these same qualities as Rick. It is only at the close of Knight of Cups where the flux of the film is toned down and Rick experiences a narratively oblique transition away from his indulgent, dissatisfied way of living. Following his close-up near the wind turbine, this particular moment of photogénie gestures towards a sense of calm within Rick, which carries him to new beginnings.  


The often nebulous and impassioned rhetoric of Epstein on the nature of photogénie betrays many of the same qualities in Malick’s aesthetic style. The mechanics of cinematic movement, which are very apparent in Malick’s films, evidence this theoretical attention from Epstein, and give viewers perceptible conditions for photogénie to be recognised. Rick’s accelerated lifestyle, evident in the fragmented editing style, foregrounds aesthetics of cinematic movement as a framework for photogénie to arise – as punctuated moments of revelation for Rick, in the rush of spiritually empty modern life. To draw comparisons with the dramatic revelry and excess of the film, Epstein invokes how “[t]he photogénie of movement, the fundamental law of the whole cinematographic aesthetic and dramaturgy, thus reveals a deep signification.”37 In discussing the physical nature of camera movement and the ability to foreground close-up framings, he paraphrases Epstein in expressing how kinetic movement and cutting emphasise “in minute detail the mobility of the soul,”38 where mechanical cinematic mobility halts to dwell on a close-up. This formulation then generates a figurative aesthetic of photogénie, where there is a sublimination of exterior movement to interior character emotionality. 

Rick’s final utterance to “Begin” belies a central tenet of photogénie, that “it is to be conjugated in the future and the imperative. It is never a state.”39 Rick’s intensified moments of photogénie and his final revelations remain artfully ambiguous, but we understand that some spiritual awakening has occurred, as made explicit by Matthew Strohl and Lee Braver in Life Above the Clouds: Philosophy in the Films of Terrence Malick.40 The credibility of their philosophical perspectives is instantiated by the “impressionistic”41 aesthetics of Knight of Cups and our ability to further recognise photogénie in operation as a narrative function, with Strohl imparting how “Knight of Cups is about the onset of spiritual awakening.”42 As the photogenic subject, Rick is on a journey of becoming; and this narrative of spiritual awakening thematically embodies Jean Epstein’s notion of photogénie through Terrence Malick’s gestural, artistic and impressionistic strategies.  As an act of faith and memory, we might too regard photogénie with continuing passion and application.


  1. Matthew Strohl, “Platonic Myth of Eros in Knight of Cups and Song to Song,” in Life Above the Clouds: Philosophy in the Films of Terrence Malick, Steven DeLay, ed. (New York: SUNY Press, 2023), p. 280.
  2. Sarah Keller, “Gambling on Photogénie: Epstein Now,” photogénie, Issue 0 (Octobre 25, 2012).
  3. Jean Epstein, “On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie,” in French Film Theory and Criticism: A History/Anthology, 1907-1939, Richard Abel, ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 314.
  4. Ibid, p. 315.
  5. Epstein, “Magnification,” in French Film Theory and Criticism, op. cit., p. 236.
  6. See Tami Williams’ Germaine Dulac: A Cinema of Sensations (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2014).
  7. Epstein, “Magnification,” pp. 235.
  8. Ibid, p. 236.
  9. Ibid, p. 235.
  10. Ibid, pp. 236-239.
  11. Sarah Keller, “Jean Epstein’s Documentary Cinephilia,” Studies in French Cinema, Volume 12, Issue 2 (2012): p. 91.
  12. Keller, “Gambling on Photogénie.”
  13. Malcolm Turvey, “Jean Epstein’s Cinema of Immanence: The Rehabilitation of the Corporeal Eye,” October, Volume 83 (Winter 1998): p. 37.
  14. Katie Kirtland, “The Cinema of the Kaleidoscope” in Jean Epstein: Critical Approaches and New Translations, Sarah Keller and Jason N. Paul, eds. (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012), pp. 95.
  15. Epstein, “On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie,” p. 316.
  16. Kirtland. “The Cinema of the Kaleidoscope,” p. 94; Keller, “Gambling on Photogénie
  17. Epstein. “Magnification,” p. 236.
  18. Christophe Wall-Romana, Jean Epstein: Corporeal Cinema and Film Philosophy (Manchester and New York: Palgrave MacMillan 2013), p.111.
  19. Epstein in Kirtland, pp. 95-97.
  20. Keller, “Jean Epstein’s Documentary Cinephilia,” p. 98.
  21. Kirtland, p. 94.
  22. Ibid, p. 98.
  23. Wall-Romana, p. 59.
  24. Keller, “Jean Epstein’s Documentary Cinephilia,” p. 99.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Epstein, “On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie,” pp. 315-316.
  27. Tarot readings sourced from Labyrinthos. Tarot figures such as “The High Priestess” and “The Hanged Man” are considered as Major Arcana cards that represent major themes and lessons of life. “The Knight of Cups” is considered as Minor Arcana, and thus operates in more of the ephemeral, momentary circumstances of life.
  28. Epstein, “Magnification,” pp. 239-340.
  29. Keller, “Gambling on Photogénie.”
  30. Wall-Romana, p. 29.
  31. Keller, “Gambling on Photogénie.”
  32. Epstein, “Magnification,” p. 236.
  33. A. A. Dowd, “Los Angeles Gets the Terrence Malick Treatment in Knight of Cups,” AV Club, 3 May 2016.
  34. James Batcho, Terrence Malick’s Unseeing Cinema: Memory, Time and Audibility (London: Palgrave MacMillian, 2018), p. 138.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Keller, “Jean Epstein’s Documentary Cinephilia,” p. 91.
  37. Jean Epstein, “Rapidity and Fatigue of the Homo spectatoris,” in Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations, Sarah Keller and Jason N. Paul, eds. (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012), p. 336.
  38. Ibid, p. 339.
  39. Epstein, “Magnification,” p. 236.
  40. Lee Braver, “The Alien God Behind the Camera: A Gnostic Viewing of Terrence Malick’s Cinema, especially Knight of Cups,” in Life Above the Clouds, op. cit., p. 299-317.
  41. Strohl, p. 280.
  42. Ibid, p. 293.

About The Author

M. Sellers Johnson is an independent scholar whose research interests include French art cinema, transnationalism, historiography, and aesthetics. He received his master’s from Te Herenga Waka (Victoria University of Wellington) in 2021. His work has appeared in Afterimage, Film-Philosophy, Film Quarterly, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, among others.

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