Two intersecting love triangles. Obsession and betrayal set against the music scene in Austin, Texas.
Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick
Stars: Haley Bennett, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, Michael Fassbender, Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, Trevante Rhodes, Boyd Holbrook, Val Kilmer, Bérénice Marlohe
Closed Captioning Available.
One of the loveliest images in “Song to Song,” the latest from Terrence Malick, is of ripples expanding across a small pool of water, echoes of a woman’s quick step. Mr. Malick, one of cinema’s philosopher kings, embraces fluidity as a visual principle and his films are filled with life’s ebb and flow — its swirling waters, swooping birds, stirring trees, billowing curtains, and gliding people and cameras. He loves silence and stillness, and the image of sunlight caressing a woman’s motionless face. But he is a searcher, and that searching informs his visual style with its restless, moving pictures.
There’s much to take in here, including the film’s narrative fragmentation, which requires you to go with the flow as you also puzzle together the story’s parts, themes and circling characters: Faye (Rooney Mara), a musician trying to find her way in Austin, Tex.; Cook (Michael Fassbender), a music producer and Faye’s sometime lover; and BV (Ryan Gosling), a musician and Faye’s other lover. A few other lovelies float in as well, including Rhonda (a moving Natalie Portman), a waitress who marries Cook; Amanda (Cate Blanchett), who has an affair with BV; and Zoey (Bérénice Marlohe), who has an affair with Faye. Holly Hunter, Iggy Pop, Johnny Rotten and Val Kilmer also drop in.
Mr. Malick began embracing narrative fragmentation years ago and it has increasingly characterized his films. Most movies rely on formulas, employing three or four acts, story beats and character arcs that are so standard you almost intuitively know when something will happen if not what. There will be a crisis; there will be a tidying up. “Song to Song” has distinct sections, but Mr. Malick frames them his own way. They move the narrative forward, but inside these sections time can seem to stutter, like a song on repeat. Many scenes are so short that they don’t seem to be overtly driving the story forward, but instead pile up and nearly swirl, like leaves caught in a gust.
The first section traces the earlier, joyful moments shared by Faye, Cook and BV; by the final section, Faye is stepping once more into a natural pool of water, challenging Heraclitus’s observation that you cannot step into the same river twice (life changes). Throughout, Mr. Malick inserts shots and short scenes that seem more like shards of memory, like those flashes from the past that suddenly materialize in the temporal slipstream. Faye and Cook gaze at each other warily; Faye and BV embrace; Faye and Cook embrace; at one point, all three fly off in a private plane to Mexico, where they cavort on a beach, wander around and get drunk amid a relay of looks.
During this idyll, play turns into a rehearsal for a possible future that’s telegraphed by a baby whom BV holds in one scene and by a tiny, elderly woman trembling alone in another scene. Cook also speaks in muted voice-over about Faye and BV as if telling himself a story. “They have a beauty in their life,” he murmurs, “that makes me ugly.” You have to take his word for it, because there’s very little here that’s intentionally ugly in “Song to Song.” Ugliness hovers like a threat, but is often only inadvertently conveyed, as when the film reduces Mexicans to touristic props. Cook, by contrast, just seems like a rich, bored henhouse fox who throws parties where women wait to be chosen and where one lies on a table like a centerpiece, food covering her naked body.
Cook’s world is a stage show or so he tells BV, a sentiment that Mr. Malick seems to share. It’s a beautiful, seductive show, an endless carnival (with little actual work or sweat) filled with jostling, occasionally colliding bodies that — whether playing onstage, thrashing in a mosh pit or seductively grinding on the floor — seem to be reaching, reaching, always reaching for something beyond these earthly, fleeting, sensual delights. As in Mr. Malick’s 2016 film “Knight of Cups” (about a screenwriter), sex and especially sex without love inevitably proves to be a crucial false promise, a temptation that leads to suffering, cascading tears and sometimes catastrophic, even fatal falls.
“Song to Song” continually flits — like the butterfly seen in one fleeting shot — from theme to theme, from love (always love) to fidelity, betrayal, identity, art, freedom, captivity, forgiveness and mercy. God is there, too, in nature and in the glowing, streaming sunlight, but also in a Madonna painted on the side of a building and in a Leonardo drawing of the Virgin Mary. The Leonardo shows up in a scene with Patti Smith, who plays herself (St. Patti) and compares Mary’s face to Faye’s. Ms. Smith tears a hole in the film because she’s so thrillingly present, so alive; playing against Ms. Smith, Ms. Mara seems lost and she just disappears, poof, like a snuffed-out candle.
Despite Ms. Smith’s electric sincerity this exchange finally feels false because Ms. Mara can’t convey the interiority that it requires, the kind of astonishing inner truth — call it a fever or call it grace, passion or holiness — effortlessly expressed by Ms. Smith and manifest in Leonardo’s Madonna. Mr. Malick’s filmmaking, with its storytelling ellipses and visual fragments, places a heavy burden on his performers, who need to build their characters primarily through individual voice-overs and in onscreen silence or near-silence, in gestures and movement. Mr. Fassbender does this brilliantly; too often, Ms. Mara and Mr. Gosling seem to be running through different acting exercises.
“Song to Song” is filled with beautiful people adrift in beautiful (glass) houses and natural settings. All this loveliness has its pleasures, but Mr. Malick’s visual choices also give the film a commercial luster that can rob that beauty of its power. That’s partly because the advertising world and mainstream cinema have long pilfered his aesthetic, turning it into a sales pitch. Mr. Malick is enraptured with beauty as an expression of God and as a path to God. But in “Song to Song” both the familiarity of his aesthetic and the inability of some of his actors to summon an inner light create immaculately photographed surfaces rather than immanence. You see the poses, not the divine.
That’s disappointing, even if there’s also much here that’s exhilarating, including the film’s ambitions and its seriousness. Seriousness in cinema is often viewed with suspicion and that’s as true now as it was when, say, Antonioni shook up the art. The difference is that now seriousness (and beauty and grace) is rarely part of a wider discussion, because that conversation is dominated by corporate cinema, where there’s often little to argue over and get excited by. There is, by contrast, much to admire in “Song to Song” and much to argue with, including its ideas about pleasure and women. So go, fall into its embrace, resist its charms, argue. This may not be a film to love, but it is a film to see.
-Manohla Dargis, NY TIMES