Screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2017
Song to Song is Terrence Malick’s eighth feature film since 1973, and his fourth to be released this decade alone. While it is true that his increased output coincides with a decline in quality, this seems almost inevitable. His first five films are all masterpieces. His last two efforts, To the Wonder (2013) and Knight of Cups (2016), are fatally flawed – the former by wasting the talents of Rachel McAdams and Javier Bardem; the latter by being so toe-curlingly wayward, specious, and stupid. So it was with no small amount of happiness that I found Song to Song to be Malick’s best film since The Tree of Life (2011), and by itself a credible and substantial addition to his oeuvre.
Faye (Rooney Mara) is a young woman trying to make it in the Austin music scene. She meets BV (Ryan Gosling), an idealistic musician who sees his music as chance to “help people by lifting their hearts.” Both are imperfect, indecisive, and unwilling to admit or alter the inadequacies of their lives. Naturally, they fall in love. BV has also already met powerful music producer Cook (Michael Fassbender), a former lover of Faye’s, and a malignant, corrupting influence on all those who fall in with him.
These main performances are superb. A lot of the storytelling is dependent on Mara, and on the movement of her eyes. She can express a huge range of emotions in a quick, furtive dart of her gaze. Gosling is winsome as ever, and he endows BV with integrity. But highest praise must go to Fassbender for his devilish portrayal of Cook. “Here I reign,” he announces, with clear Miltonian inflection. Charming and handsome, he has influence and inordinate wealth, which invariably draws people into his sphere. But the performance is more than just demonstrating Cook’s corrupting power and hedonism; it shows us the weaknesses of a character capable of possessing so much, but incapable of loving.
This is all the more potent because Malick has a particular way of presenting a pair in love. Their movements express emotion. The two characters are usually walking in tandem; or dancing together; or generally frolicking, caressing each other. The camera is rarely still, and its movements are never conventional – it takes on the temperaments of the people it displays, and impresses upon us the rush of being youthful and in love. Frequent close-ups, shifting and changing angle at great speeds. Quick cutting. Sunlight always behind the pair, intermittently blocked and then streaming out again. (Everything we should expect from Emmanuel Lubezki.) When Faye and BV share their happiest moments, it’s always soundtracked to perfection. The effect of these scenes is akin to watching a dance. All verbiage falls to uselessness. The confluence of the compositions, the actors’ movements, the camera’s movements, the cutting, and the soundtracking turn these scenes into the purest rhapsodies.
The film is not without missteps. It misuses its supporting cast, just like Malick’s two most recent films have. Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, and Bérénice Marlohe all appear as lovers for Cook, BV, and Faye respectively; only Rhonda (Portman) makes a significant impact on the story. Holly Hunter appears as Rhonda’s mother, and her scenes tantalise with their brevity.
There is also an abundance of cameos thrown into this already crowded landscape. Some of these are silly, but perhaps fit with Cook’s influence and with the hedonistic atmosphere he creates. John Lydon, Iggy Pop, and Patti Smith among others pop up for a few seconds and disappear. (Patti Smith’s time on screen is, surprisingly, rather moving and appropriate.) However, there is one rather large error in this regard. One scene involves Val Kilmer, who has a name in the credits, but features in a scene so pointless that it hardly constitutes a ‘part’. I was rather surly following his scene, as it extracted me from the film. Before, I was entranced. After, I became self-aware for the first time since the opening credits: aware that I was sitting in the dark, surrounded by strangers, watching light dance upon the screen.
That said, and with the admission that he’s a hugely indulgent and occasionally wrong-headed director, Malick did manage to win back my attention for a final twenty minutes of unbelievable beauty. I cannot think of the words for an adequate description; but it was utterly joyous, brimming with soul, and transcendent. I anticipate eagerly the chance to rewatch this film, and get lost in its exquisite textures again.
Image: Ellen Nivrae