The Bold Visions of Song to Song
The characters of Terrance Malick’s new film, Song to Song, could be weightless. In one scene, Faye (Rooney Mara) and BV (Ryan Gosling) float in zero gravity while flying on Cook’s (Michael Fassebender) private plane. These people dance and sing, live on the top floors of skyscrapers, and watch the sun set in the Texas desert. They’ve left their broken families and boring suburbs to chase a different kind of life. As Faye tells us in a voice-over, “I wanted to escape every tie and every hold, to go up higher.” Faye looks up to the sky often and watches the birds. Malick’s characters want to fly, but of course, they can’t.
Song to Song is an acquired taste; like most of Malick’s recent films, including Tree of Life (2011) and Knights of Cup (2016), it’s been met with lukewarm reviews. The plot is a sparse love triangle between Faye, BV (what kind of name is that?), and Cook set amid the music scene of Austin. Other women hang on the margins of the film, on-again off-again girlfriends of either Cook or BV. They are a waitress (Natalie Portman), a singer (Lykke Li) and a mystery (Cate Blanchett). Patti Smith and Iggy Pop show up playing themselves. All of these people are more like sketches than three-dimensional characters. If they have depth (or weight, per se), it’s because Mara, Gosling, Fassbender, Portman, and others, have been in so many superb movies over the last few years that we already know their faces, their mannerisms, their voices like old friends. By letting these stars play fictional versions of themselves, Malick frees us to see everything else in the story: the rest of the world.
Indeed, in Song to Song, Malick aims to create less of a traditional narrative than a filmic experience. You won’t always be able to figure out what characters are talking about. For people that live and breathe music, Faye, BV and Cook don’t seem to know or talk much about their work. Instead, they speak in broad themes (“You get used to drifting, wandering, they say follow the light” or “It would be awful to have these good times, but not love itself”). Whether you think these musings are privileged daydreams or earnest philosophical inquiries says a lot about whether Song to Song will thrill or irritate you.
Visually, Song to Song is almost always beautiful. Malick calls on the talents of the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, winner of three consecutive Academy Awards for Gravity (2013), Birdman (2014) and The Revenant (2015). Scenes are fragmented, most shots lasting for only a few seconds. The camera rushes and retreats towards actors; a butterfly in the background may be just as important as the characters fighting in the foreground. Overlapping sounds will drown outspoken words, indie songs will fade into classical scores. This strategy of fragmentation means the film feels more like flipping through Snapchat than watching a traditional Hollywood blockbuster. Although the point-of-view shifts from Faye to BV to Cook and back again, the film’s formal style combines to create a collective memory. Blissful moments of romance and pleasure are gone in an instant, but not forgotten. “I wish it could last forever,” Faye says at one point.
The kind of love that Song to Song believes in is a love without bounds. It’s at once both exclusionary and inclusive. When Faye and BV are in love, they can go anywhere, do anything, and find happiness. They’re like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Cook, meanwhile, sees his life of wealth and material satisfaction (he lives in a remarkably metaphorical glass house) as empty next to the love of his friends. “They have a beauty that makes me look ugly,” Cook says. It’s a revealing statement because the entire cast is so beautiful that we wonder what kind of ugliness is possible from them. In Malick’s vision, however, beauty is synonymous with truth, ugliness with lies. The film’s romanticism lies in the possibility that Faye and BV will the find the beauty within each other, a transcendent truth.
The film’s sublimity shouldn’t overshadow how sensual Song to Song remains. “What part of me do you want?” asks the waitress (Portman) in bed with Cook. This is a film that wants every part of the body. Mara is put on particular display: Her nails and hair change colors, and Gosling often kisses her feet, strokes her cheeks, marks her chest with an X in marker. There are only a few sex scenes, yet entire stretches of the film are defined by intimacy, of characters getting close enough to whisper, to touch. Malick’s camera settles on men with strange tattoos as Faye reads a few lines from William Blake’s poem “The Divine Image”: “Pity a human face and love, the human form divine…Then every man, of every clime, that prays in his distress, prays to the human form divine.”
Malick has always been making religious movies; his 1978 film, Days of Heaven, ends in swarm of locusts. Tree of Life was an even more explicit portrait of mid-century American Christianity (Think of Jessica Chastain’s famous voice-over: “The nuns taught us there are two ways of life: the way of Nature and the way of Grace”). But in Song to Song most of the religious and philosophical musing is kept to a minimum. If we associate contemporary religion with restrictions, with sin and punishment, then this film seems firmly secular. And if the film seems to lack strong ethics and moral values, it’s because they must come from within characters, who struggle to articulate any right way of living. “I told myself any experience is better than no experience,” Faye remarks.
What’s left is an open city for the viewer to explore; freedom becomes not just something for the characters to explore but a burden placed upon the viewer. We are left to make sense of Song to Song much like the English explorers in The New World (a Malick film from 2005): Our maps won’t tell us where we are going. I’m somehow left with the lasting image of Faye and BV racing through the stoplights of downtown Austin in a convertible. The wind rushes around them. Gosling has one eye on the road so he doesn’t crash and another on his love. This is a radical way of living, an impossible balance. A moment that lasts a minute but wishes it could be forever.