An incredibly slow, self-indulgent mess which works better as a Lubezki cinematography show-reel than it does an actual film.
Terrence Malick has been a frustratingly hard director to swallow of late. A maverick with the glory of such titles as Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life behind him, he has proven himself more than capable of producing truly ethereal and mesmerising works of cinema. To the shame of the medium itself however, Malick has proven himself equally capable of creating some of the most hollow and self-indulgent films to ever grace celluloid. His prior fictional outing, Knight of Cups, offers no more than evidence of a director whose proclaimed genius has led to the relocation of his head too far up the wrong end of his body. Unfortunately, Song to Song gives little indication that he plans to move it back onto his shoulders anytime soon.
Starring the incredible ensemble of Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman, Malick’s latest explores love, obsession and betrayal against the backdrop of the Austin music scene. Mara as Faye finds herself caught in a love triangle between Gosling’s BV and Fassbender’s Cook leading to a separation which allows the characters to proceed on their own paths whilst longing for lost love. Where the film works best is in its wondrous aesthetic. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography aches with sun-drenched romance, gliding between the beautiful people and places put before him almost in desperation to aim his camera at something more. The issue is that the surface is as deep as there is to go. What is completely lacking is any sense of direction or form, combining to create what is an eventually mind-numbingly slow, 129 minute perfume ad.
The truth is though, to die-hard Malick-ites who would proclaim even his toe nail clippings a profound comment on the notion of existential thought, such negativity toward one of his films will be met with an outcry of “you just didn’t get it”. They wouldn’t be totally wrong in this case though; with Song to Song there doesn’t really seem to be an “it” to “get”. Seemingly void of humanity and completely at distance with the real world, Song to Song couldn’t be further from its predecessors. Both The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life work so well by grounding the experience in their characters, unravelling the universe around them from the inside out. The methods used in those films to provide a provocative stream of consciousness, Malick now adopts as a shallow visual replica of his past work. What was once simultaneously profound and insightful dialogue is now meaningless whispering which you half expect to be followed by a brand of aftershave. Once the beautifully unforgettable image of a father holding the foot of his newborn child is now Rooney Mara strangely playing with a door. Although one should really judge a film by its own existence, it is hard to ignore how a once revolutionary auteur has transformed his tropes from cinematic art to a worryingly effective drinking game based on moments of directorial self-indulgence.
It isn’t all bad though, the performances in the film particularly from Mara and Fassbender are as good as expected considering the improvised nature of the material. Getting very little time to breathe as the film cuts from scene to memory to insert shot, the entire cast are clearly doing their best but are overall completely overshadowed by the fragmentary edit. Living up to its title, Song to Song’s soundtrack featuring Lykke Li, Die Antwoord and Patti Smith allows moments of alleviation and enthusiasm just as the film itself starts to deviate further. For fans of his last two works there is plenty here to satisfy. We drift through memory and moment in the same manner as Knight of Cups in front of a new location with more beautiful stars, but if you wanted something more from Malick it isn’t likely you’ll find it here.
For a director whose name finds itself forever imprinted in the history of American cinema, as a result of true masterpieces of the form, it is an inconceivable shame to find him bordering on such self-mockery. Malick, worshipped for his manipulation of pure cinematic experience to transcend the barriers of the medium itself, has produced a film which feels more like a Vimeo project which refuses to end than a creation of one of arthouse’s most renowned contemporary figures. By its end, Song to Song doesn’t sing. It snores.
Song to Song, directed by Terrence Malick, is distributed in the UK by StudioCanal, Certificate 15.