Song to Song, Four Ways
During Critics Campus 2017 our critics took part in a live-editing workshop. Four of them reviewed Terrence Malick’s latest feature, Song to Song, and then edited their drafts with Harry Windsor. Read their final reviews below – and don’t forget to check out all of our Critics Campus coverage.
Review by Amanda Barbour
Terrence Malick’s latest feature oscillates between two binaries; dance and emptiness. Song to Song floats from story to story, lover to lover, against the backdrop of the South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival. Cook (Michael Fassbender) is your prototypical evil music producer; BV (Ryan Gosling) is half musician, half heartthrob, and Faye (Rooney Mara), the classic troubled nice girl. Faye dates BV, but sometimes has sex with Cook, and much drama ensues. It’s not a complicated nor original plotline, but the way in which Malick tells their stories is enthralling.
Despite Austin being his hometown, Malick completed his undergraduate degree in philosophy at Harvard before becoming a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University in England. Transplanting his production, awkwardly, into this world of rock stars and alternative music signals the idea of being alien in your own home. This is reinforced by the recurring use of luxurious, yet empty, apartments with floor to ceiling windows. Our characters are dislocated from their natural environments, and find themselves looking at it from a distance, never engaging in nor being affected by their metropolis. Recurrently, they look into water, always reflected yet never immersed in it.
The self-consciously stereotypical characters that Malick uses become parodies of themselves, but I encourage you to suspend your scoff, as these reveal the anesthetizing superficiality of most human interaction. Faye at one point says directly, “Am I a good person? Do I even want to be? Or just seem like one so people will like me?” This begs the question of whether our virtues are innate, or performative. The world is a stage, and Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography captures that perfectly as it sweeps its audience into a waltz with the actors. Uninterrupted and fluid, the camera sways among lovers as their bodies pirouette, ricochet and are drawn back to each other. These characters are passive, and allow themselves to be carried by circumstance, suggesting the inevitability of both love and disappointment.
Malick is often criticised for what’s seen as an over-indulgent use of voice-over. Disembodied voices are seen as a short-cut to depth, but Malick is using an old device in new ways. These characters are not articulating interior monologues, these are sentences that float in time and space, that are projected into the void yet are not met with an echo or response. The worlds we inhabit are vacant spaces, and the only thing that is sincere and of authentic substance is love. Malick communicates that love, in all of its complexity and beauty, through dance.
Review by Phoebe Chen
Rooney Mara pirouettes recklessly across a bedroom in the afternoon sun, or across a music festival’s grassy grounds, or around a luxury pool at dusk, or anywhere else, aglow in any variation of natural light. The interchangeability of such images has become a defining feature of Terrence Malick’s recent work, and his latest, Song to Song, draws on a similar stock archive.
Set against the music scene in Austin, Texas, the film follows Faye (Mara), the former lover/receptionist of record mogul Cook (Michael Fassbender), and BV (Ryan Gosling), a young musician who enters the fray, playing lover to Mara and protégé to Fassbender. Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett and singer Lykke Li all drift in and out of the narrative, their relationships to the central trio obscured by Malick’s vague chronology.
Song to Song is predictably beautiful to look at, punctuated only by the realist grit – or what Malick intends as such – of the behind-the-scenes concert footage and low-resolution cutaways to streetside banalities. These read like attempts to borrow authenticity, but Malick’s obvious unfamiliarity with this hipster subculture instead makes proceedings awkwardly superficial.
The film relies on the heightened visual cues of melodrama – close-ups of wistful faces, a stylised, meandering camera, the rosy gold of twilight – without the narrative and emotional progression we expect of the genre. Though scant on plot, the film relies on ambient signifiers of profundity: backlit figures pace across rooms, bare legs wander along a shoreline at sunset. This poetic use of space would be compelling were it not for the simultaneous reliance on embarrassingly aphoristic voiceover. This narration offers more clarity and accessibility, succinctly bridging some of the narrative ellipses. But Malick’s words often oversaturate scenes. Why not let a shot articulate itself, instead of overlaying Mara’s wistful voice saying, “Any experience is better than no experience”? “You killed my love,” Natalie Portman’s Rhonda claims, as though we haven’t already surmised that Fassbender’s character is predatory and draining.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the film is Malick’s fragmentary characterisation. Through alternating perspectives and unpredictably shifting visual tone – likely the consequence of the film’s elliptical structure – Malick captures the volatility of human connection. Mara and Gosling are convincing in their coy affection and subsequent jealousy, and Portman and Fassbender in their excitement, then fear. These characters remind us that neither vulnerability nor bad behaviour is necessarily innate, but contingent on specific situations. It’s just unfortunate that these perceptive glimpses of humanity are drowned out by Malick’s atmospheric blather.
Review by Faith Everard
Song to Song, from director Terrence Malick, is a serious film about very serious things, like death and pain. It’s so serious that at its Australian premiere at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival, the audience burst into laughter as the credits rolled.
The film traces the love life of young songwriter couple Faye (Rooney Mara) and BV (Ryan Gosling), as well as that of their controlling music manager and friend Cook (Michael Fassbender). Song to Song is grounded in the music world, and scenes set at music festivals are unscripted, filmed largely with people who are not actors. There are also several cameos from music legends including Iggy Pop and Patti Smith, but these appearances add little to the film aside from cheap star quality. At one point, Smith states that she “could go on for hours with just one chord”, an apt way to describe the lack of tonal variation in the film itself.
Where the tone is static, the cinematography is busy, and comes courtesy of Emmanuel Lubezki, who has worked on other Malick films, including The New World (2005) and Tree of Life (2011). The camera drifts underwater and skids along grass, hovering uncomfortably close to the characters. The main trio are in pursuit of sex, romance and ultimately, happiness, but as their listless, half-formed voiceovers reveal, each of them feels trapped, and for two hours, we’re trapped alongside them.
The cycle of love and heartbreak only seems to bring misery to an already dreary group of people. Fassbender’s Cook has the clearest personality as a selfish misogynist, but even he cannot shine in the context of poor writing. The characters’ laboured and interchangeable thoughts could have been ripped from a teenager’s diary. “You killed my love”, says one, in voiceover. “I like the pain. Feels like life” says another. These lines float through the film without a hint of irony to redeem them. Besides, any tangible sense of character that we have is interrupted by the intrusion of A-listers Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman, who, like the rock stars, steal precious screen-time from the leads.
For a film that primarily concerns itself with the philosophy of life and love, neither of these things are explored in enough depth. A character dies, a romance ends, and we feel nothing. Even if boredom is the point of the film, there is no need for the experience itself to be boring.
Review by Greer Forrester
Equal parts student film, faux music doco and experimental fashion commercial, Song to Song shines in its moments as music documentary-adjacent, but is otherwise a meandering waste of potential.
Rooney Mara stars as Faye, a mopey waif who spends her time milling between concerts and indulgent parties. She’s under the thumb of her egotistical boss Cook (Michael Fassbender), an abusive musician obsessed with sex and control. The power dynamic is unbalanced by the appearance of BV (Ryan Gosling), a rare male Manic Pixie Dream Girl. BV teaches Faye how to be quirky and have fun at the same time, to Cook’s dismay; a struggle over Faye’s ownership between the three of them begins.
The characters move from place to place and lover to lover, yet each scene plays out in largely the same way. Faye finds herself owned by someone; they’re entranced by her flat, exposed stomach; her narration declares how unhappy she feels; we move on. That even the ways in which characters touch are repetitive (besides Rooney Mara’s stomach, there’s a lot of focus on people’s hands and feet) further limits our ability to distinguish between them.
Despite all the almost-sex happening on screen, director Terrence Malick doesn’t appear interested in showing a male body; Fassbender is frequently shown in the company of semi-nude women but only briefly appears undressed himself. Berenice Marlohe’s appearance as Faye’s lesbian lover is likewise marred by obtrusively sexualised scenes and exploitative costume choices – at one point reading a book outside in her lingerie. Though all the women are presented sympathetically, they’re still objectified.
There are moments that accidentally undercut the overwhelming self-seriousness. “I love the pain…it feels like life,” Mara’s narration drones, as a family incongruously zooms past her on Segways. When Mara succumbs to Marlohe’s sexual advances, Marlohe’s dog is watching them in the background.
It’s the many cameos, most prominently from Patti Smith, which drive the few moments of authentic emotion. These scenes have a rare immediacy and passion which the main cast don’t provide. Combined with the eclectic soundtrack (as disparate as Die Antwoord, Danse Macabre, and “If I Had Words”, that song from the classic 1995 film Babe), the musicians are the highlight of the film.
With endless scenes of the attractive, talented cast doing little more than posing, the film never comes into focus. I always thought I could watch Ryan Gosling doing nothing for two hours; Song to Song proved me wrong.
Song to Song screens on 16 August at 9pm