People in glass houses shouldn’t be in Terrence Malick films, but invariably they are and the temptation to throw bricks is becoming almost overpowering. Song to Song is the latest of a triptych of contemporary relationship melodramas from the once-reclusive auteur.
As ever, famous beautiful people wander while Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera butterflies around them before drifting off to glare at a sunset, or examine a caterpillar, or a view from underwater, or some poor people for, you know, perspective. Or, as Spinal Tap’s David St. Hubbins once put it: “Too much fucking perspective.” We are in the midst of the Austin, Texas music scene: the exclusive nightclubs, the dusty mosh pit of the summer festivals and the parties with the obligatory infinity pool and the naked woman sushi serving dish.
Faye (Rooney Mara) is fay: a receptionist, dog walker, something to do with showing apartments to people, a musician and possibly a songwriter who is having violent sex (“I want to feel something,” as she 50 Shades it) with boss and music promoter Cook (Michael Fassbender). She says violent sex, but here as everywhere the sex is decorous and precious and is as aimed at the camera as anything on PornHub. Faye falls for BV (Ryan Gosling), a songwriter who doesn’t write songs. He’s obviously struck by her uniqueness conveyed by her listening to music on a vintage iPod while at a party. She’s literally dancing to a different drum. Together they star in a five minute trailer for their own relationship before anything as substantial as a scene takes place. This is something Malick resorts to frequently: like someone fast forwarding through an album to get to a favourite guitar solo.
A menage-a-trois of sorts gets going, with presumably BV unwitting, because why would a girl you just met not be having sex with Michael Fassbender? Meanwhile, Fassbender desperately attempts to escape the movie by any means necessary, including jumping up and down, wrestling Mexicans and running after one of Malick’s precious seagulls, presumably with the intention of strangling the cormorant. Natalie Portman shows up as a waitress who Cook – wait, he’s the cook and she’s the waitress, that’s brilliant – harasses into a relationship. For all the GoPro cinematography and the postmodernism, Malick’s vision of women and sex generally is as dated as most of his pop stars. Faye doesn’t have enough of a character to have a sexuality.
When Faye embarks on a lesbian relationship with a French woman – you can tell she’s French because she dances all the time (cf. To the Wonder) – it feels more motivated by someone shouting instructions from behind the camera than anything else. Likewise, Cate Blanchett wanders in off the street to give Gosling something to do while Portman and Fassbender’s relationship goes south and Rooney Mara realises she didn’t know a good thing when she had it. By the way, it’s hard not to revert to the actors’ names because the characters are so transparent you see right through. The final moral of the film turns out to be an incomplete Woody Allen quotation: “Sex without love is an empty experience.”
Song to Song aims to be The Great Gatsby but without the charisma; A Star is Born without a star. It is deeply, deeply superficial, or superficially deep, if you prefer. Despite some notable cameos – John Lydon, Patti Smith et al. – it has as little to say about music as Knight of Cups had to say about Hollywood. This is a real pity. Malick’s first three films were deeply engaged in their historical moments, in violence and in class and poverty as well as love and relationships. Malick’s last three films are only interested in love – sadly, love is sometimes just a dull topic.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty