The unpreviewed release of Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” on Saturday night — you can’t really call it a surprise, given that it’s what most people were expecting — left critics scurrying to post their reactions. Less than 48 hours later, the accumulated weight of analysis already runs to tens of thousands of words, as befits an album that’s stunning in its breadth and irresistible in its gossipy particulars.
There are two words in particular that recur with surprising frequency, especially when discussing the hour-long film that accompanies the music: “Terrence Malick.” Bustle cited “the Terrence Malick-like visuals of ‘Lemonade.'” In separate pieces, The Daily Beast called it a “Terrence Malick-inspired visual accompaniment” and “a Malick-esque cinematic companion piece. In the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Piet Levy observed that “The dreamlike visuals recall exquisite auteur Terrence Malick,” while the Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot noted, “A narrator evokes the whispered poetry of a Terrence Malick film.” HitFix’s Drew McWeeny went even further, suggesting that Beyoncé “out-Malicks Terrence Malick with the way she’s structured the overall piece. This is a beautifully organized trip through truth and imagination, stark reality and big visual metaphor, and the expert balance of all of it is what I find really impressive.”
Malick’s name has been coming up a lot lately. Although the box-office receipts suggest few people saw his latest movie, “Knight of Cups,” Malick was an obvious point of reference for Alejandro González Iñárritu on “The Revenant,” and although “The Walking Dead” isn’t exactly known for its art-house visuals, but when reaching for a reference point to explain the hallucinatory texture of “What Happened and What’s Going On,” director Greg Nicotero had a handy reference point: “We call this our Terrence Malick episode.”
With “The Revenant,” the citation is unavoidable: The movie’s images at times so closely resemble Malick that it went beyond homage to verge on plagiarism. In part, that’s because “Revenant” director” Alejandro González Iñárritu and Malick both work with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, but when you’re shooting a symbolic figure with her arms outstretched against a backdrop of untamed nature, you know whose territory you’re on. But with “Lemonade,” it’s a stretch, at least if you know more about Malick than his use of voiceover and vaguely “poetic” imagery. For one thing, with seven credited directors and a small army of cinematographers, “Lemonade” can’t be said to have any single inspiration — unless you count Beyoncé’s righteous rage at her husband’s apparent infidelity. In a thorough breakdown for Thrillist, Angelica Jade Bastien cites Caravaggio and Luis Ricardo Falero; Vulture’s Dee Lockett notes the specific influence of Pipilotti Rist’s 1997 installation, “Ever Is Over All” on the “Hold Up” section, which features Beyoncé smashing car windows with a baseball bat. (Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle has come up a few times as well, and I’d throw in Maya Deren’s “Meshes of the Afternoon,” too.) In the New York Times, Wesley Morris reels off a list of visual inspirations without once going to the Malick well: “Visually, ‘Lemonade’ invokes a lot — Madonna’s ‘La Isla Bonita,’ ‘Carrie,’ ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ and the car-smashing at the end of Michael Jackson’s ‘Black or White.’ But what its black-female spiritualism calls to mind is ‘Daughters of the Dust,’ Julie Dash’s landmark tone poem from 1991, loosely — very loosely — about three generations, descended from slavery, and their migration north in 1902.”
Morris’ evocation of “black female spiritualism” is key because it points up the fact that “Lemonade’s” reference points not only surpass Malick, but that they diverge pointedly from the Christian imagery that so suffuses Malick’s films — especially those from “The New World On” on, which is what most people seem to mean when they say something looks like Terrence Malick. True, as David Ehrlich points out at Indiewire, one of “Lemonade’s” directors, Khalil Joseph, also worked as an editor and behind-the-scenes cinematographer on Malick’s “To the Wonder,” but he argues that even the “Pray You Catch Me” segments — his best guess for Joseph’s contribution — are “[a]s informed by Gregory Crewdson or ‘Night of the Hunter'” as by anything Malick made. “Daughters of the Dust,” which Miriam Bale also cites in her dissection for the Hollywood Reporter, is likewise an unmissable inspiration, enough that some on Twitter questioned why Beyoncé didn’t just hire “Daughters'” Julie Dash instead.
For all we know, Bey and Jay end every night by curling up on the living room couch and watching “The Thin Red Line” — although maybe Jay’s been sleeping on the couch of late — but Malick’s name has become a kind of reductive shorthand for any movie that departs from a strictly linear narrative, especially if it involves voiceover narration and/or shots of vegetation. It’s the highest compliment when a director’s name graduates from proper noun to all-purpose adjective, but it invariably means reducing their body of work to a few easily recognizable traits, and, more importantly, giving them ownership of those qualities. Is a movie suspenseful? Must be Hitchcockian. Is there weird stuff going on with people’s bodies? “Cronenbergian” is here to help.
Malick is unique among the adjectivized in that he’s ascended to those heights without a single popular success. One wonders how many of the people invoking his name have seen even one of his movies. (One likened “Lemonade’s” advance teaser to Malick while also calling it a “gritty vignette,” which is about as far from an accurate description of Malick as one can get.) Invocations of Malick are the new “Felliniesque.”
With “Lemonade,” the Malick comparisons aren’t just facile, but they substantially understate its sprawling visual ambition, not to mention its pronounced political and cultural intelligence. One thing “Lemonade” does (apparently) have in common with Malick’s movies is that it’s intensely personal in ways we may never quite understand: Malick’s last three movies correlate strongly with what little we know of his personal life, but unless he decides to do his first interview in decades, we’ll never know for sure, and while Beyoncé did recently give her first extensive interview in three years, she cannily did it before anyone could ask her about “Lemonade.” Beyoncé is a hell of a lot more visible than the publicity-shy Malick, but “Lemonade” makes us question how well we know her, and how much we have the right to.