Terrence Malick’s continued examination of the conflict between a spiritual ideal and reality resumes in his new film, Song to Song. The erudite director fixes his gaze on the Austin, Texas music scene where shades of red and blue, movement and stillness, and penury and luxury inform a dense text on the contradictory forces that propel people in and out of happiness. It is in equal measures his most fragmented work and his most narratively driven since at least The New World. And while it shares many of the thematic discomforts found in his previous narrative film, Knight of Cups, i.e; a petrifying fear of nothingness and a hollow longing for experience, it’s a notably more romantic and buoyant enterprise. While it’s unlikely to persuade Malick’s dissenters back into the fold, those who reveled in the romanticism of The New World may find something in Song to Song to admire.
The film’s Victorian qualities emerge outright, wherein Faye (Rooney Mara) is entangled in a love triangle with two other men. The first, a charming, easy-going musician (Ryan Gosling) wins Faye’s affections through his sweetness and candor; their meet-cute moment renders any of La La Land’s romanticism obsolete (as if they weren’t already!). The second, a cutthroat music producer (Michael Fassbender), attempts to win Faye through material temptations; he lures her into his extravagant post-modern mansion, promising her passage from relative obscurity to opulence. With the producer rebuffed, he takes solace in excess before seducing a naïve waitress (Natalie Portman), leveraging his status for marriage. She accepts, in what’s to become a moment of pleasure for a lifetime of discomfort.
Akin to Rick in Knight of Cups, Faye emblemizes the experiences one suffers when combating extreme anhedonia. The world of the unhappy is a galaxy away from the planet of the happy, with Malick’s swift camera and complex editing patterns steering Faye toward some measure of redemption. She finds herself navigating an uneasy path, one that balances the relative domestic and artistic bliss of her relationship with Gosling’s musician with the passionate throes of Fassbender’s producer. Their relationships converge and stray, in what becomes Malick’s most inspired study of fluid sexuality.
Most will be quick to suggest Malick’s unflattering relationships with actors, yet those performers that he does highlight are rarely afforded the attention they deserve. The ephemeral qualities of Malick’s cinema may not lend itself to actorly grandstanding, but nevertheless there have been some incredibly poignant performances to survive his methods. For example, the casting of Ben Affleck for To the Wonder was an inspired choice in that his broad physical presence compensates for his limited skillset; his domineering physique rendered feckless when combating the emotional reality of his collapsing marriage. Rooney Mara is a considerably more talented actor, though Malick utilizes her physicality in a similar way, emphasizing her slender frame against massive and intimidating backdrops, often times finding her lost among hordes of concertgoers. Malick’s camera will often emphasize her discomfort by swiftly moving around her from a high angle, persuasively highlighting a world around her that’s on the verge of consuming her. It’s only during more light-hearted and passionate scenes with Gosling does Malick level his gaze, submitting to her joy.
Perhaps the key to unraveling the film’s esoteric design is a line uttered by Fassbender’s character, wherein he suggests “they [Mara and Gosling] have a beauty in their life that makes me ugly”. It’s a line that precedes a night of hedonistic, self-pitying debauchery, wherein Fassbender’s need for experiencing experience is revealed as the hollow exercise that it is. And through the course of the film, it’s the thesis statement that can be applied to every character, where characters spiral out of control only to realize the tactile importance of what they lost. This, of course, is but a cursory, first-glance reading of an incredibly complex and emotionally draining film; a film that preoccupies itself with many of Malick’s other previously explored thematic concerns like effete patriarchs and detached siblings. Whatever reservations I may have for the film – whether it be its increasingly abstract editing patterns or the overwhelming qualities of its sound design – will more or less be attended to when I revisit Song to Song. It’s the great gift of Malick’s cinema: no one viewing can adequately grapple with the scope of his vision. Those who suggest otherwise are just not paying attention.