BERLIN (AFP) - Reclusive US director Terrence Malick drew cheers Sunday with the most-anticipated competition contender of the Berlin film festival, Knight of Cups, starring Christian Bale as a crisis-racked Hollywood screenwriter.
Malick, true to form, did not attend the event but Bale and co-star Natalie Portman represented him on the red carpet at the gala premiere in the German capital.
They told reporters after a packed press screening, which met with lengthy applause and cries of "bravo", that the 71-year-old Texan filmmaker had given them precious few clues about the story before turning on the camera.
"Our mantra throughout the whole film was kind of like 'let's start before we're ready' and so you get a lot of happy accidents and real responses," he said.
Knight of Cups, whose title is taken from a tarot card, tells the story of Rick, a successful film industry writer and compulsive womaniser who is haunted by failed relationships.
He sets out on an odyssey in which Malick's signature non-linear storytelling, spectacular cinematography and whispered voiceovers take the place of standard movie plot and dialogue.
Rick goes to see the loves of his life - his estranged wife, a doctor played by Cate Blanchett, and his former mistress (Portman) as well as a revolving cast of models, strippers and hangers-on.
"It's about somebody whose dreams and desires have been fulfilled but who feels a great void within himself," Bale, 41, said.
"It's somebody who's seen the peak of the mountain and has all the acclaim and all of the invitations to the right places and knows all the right people and all that. There's a great deal of laughter but there's a great deal of sorrow as well within it."
Bale said Malick's insistence on improvisation extended to the filming as well.
"They would just hand me a GoPro (camera) and say, 'shoot a scene'," he said.
Portman, 33, said she had long hoped to work with Malick, calling his 1978 drama Days of Heaven "probably my favourite film ever".
"It was one of the rare experiences where the person exceeds your expectations," she said.
The actress said Malick gave the cast "30 pages a day of suggested dialogue that we could pick and choose from".
"Just searching for the discoveries every day - there's no sense that you have a script that you're just executing while you're making the movie - every day is a search for something beautiful," she said.
Answering a reporter's critical question about the film's portrayal of women as either "seductresses or saviours" and its lushly shot nude scenes, Portman said Malick had captured part of Hollywood's essence.
The film depicts "everything from the superficiality that you might find at a Hollywood party and the way women might be treated there, as opposed to Cate Blanchett's character who has great soul and generosity and humanity," she said.
"The city can encompass both those extremes and he (Rick) is trying to find that path in a world peopled by those extremes, both male and female."
Malick won Berlin's prestigious Golden Bear top prize for The Thin Red Line in 1999 and the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2011 for The Tree of Life.
Knight of Cups is one of 19 films in the running for the 65th Golden Bear, to be awarded on Saturday by jury president Darren Aronofsky.
Ahead of Sunday's premieres, critics polled by industry magazine Screen gave the highest marks to Andrew Haigh's 45 Years, which drew rave reviews for Charlotte Rampling's performance as a woman whose time-tested marriage begins to falter.