Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling and Michael Fassbender star in Terrence Malick's latest release.
And so the prostitute says, "Create the Illusion, but don't believe it."
I am not sure if that is Terrence Malick's thesis with Song To Song, an elliptical fairy tale of despondency, but the film does feature Val Kilmer wielding a chainsaw on stage at the SXSW music festival, so there is that.
It also embeds clips from Eric Von Stroheim's Greed, offers heartbreaking relationship advice from punk rock goddess Patti Smith, cheerfully cuts off Iggy Pop in mid-sentence and makes a little time for Natalie Portman to wait tables and attend church services kitted out in Erin Brockovich inspired push-up bras.
Song to Song is Malick's fifth film in six years, not including his forthcoming Europe-set WWII epic, to be released later in 2017. Apparently, Song To Song has been in production in one way or another for seven years; long enough to recast Christian Bale (or re-purpose his footage into Knight of Cups) and lose Arcade Fire completely in the editing room. This means that the overall process overlaps all the way back with Tree of Life, the touchstone for his current mode of cinema.
The ongoing price to pay for scrapping conventional storytelling (and, you know, actual scripts) has yielded his work some superb benefits ... for those keen to tune into his wavelength. Of course, this is not for everyone, and do not be surprised when many film-goers drawn in by the marquee actors and musician cameos flee the experience in frustration. Like it or not, Malick has, for some time now, been in the business of capturing elusive, immersive, Steadicam dreams of time and place that he subtly bends into narrative in the editing room.
Here he films in the in-between spaces of Texas, be it backstage casual at South By Southwest, the concrete and glass boxes of the wealthy, or windswept desert pools in the wilderness. You would not recognize this as the same Austin in the front half of Quentin Tarantino's Deathproof or the sprawling walkabouts of so many a Richard Linkater joint. And though the film features an impressively programmed and multifarious playlist, the soundtrack is less the music, and more the palpable ennui of gorgeous white young things trying to find themselves in a confusing world of indulgence.
Rooney Mara, an actress who can do no wrong in my book, turns in a desperately yearning, possibly self-loathing performance as Faye, a lost soul who was conquered by her charismatic, but vile record producer boss, Cook, for whom she has (ickily) worked since she was sixteen. Michael Fassbender has not been this slimy since Ridley Scott's The Counselor. He lives in Peter Fonda's cantilevered hilltop abode from The Limey, as if he had it flown into Austin strut by strut, from the Hollywood hills.
Cook is in the throes of a bromance, of sorts, with an indie musician known as BV (Ryan Gosling playing Ryan Gosling - to wit: "You can say anything you want to me, that is the fun of me." Hey Girl.) But really, he is attempting to woo BV under his music label with the intention of exploiting his talents and owning his copyrights. BV is rather zen about the whole music thing in general, only doing live gigs; and yet we never actually see him play anything in the film. Gosling. Is. That. Zen.
BV meets Faye at a party, while Cook is rubbing the cremated ashes of one of his idols on random party guests. (Yup, that kind of movie). The three of them take a road trip down to an impossibly gorgeous corner of Mexico where they cavort around until everything kind of implodes. Like a classic villain, Cook seethes at the all-too-familiar-love triangle, "They have a beauty in their life, it makes me ugly."
They all go their separate ways. Faye is pursued by a Parisian model (Casino Royale's tall seductress and waster of 50-year-old Macallan, Bérénice Marlohe), for whom she house-sits. BV meets and takes Cate Blanchett out for a spin or two until his mother (Linda Edmond, magnificent) gives the new girl the inexplicable boot over bad conversation and salad greens. There is a loaded, but lovely scene where Blanchett's string of pearls breaks and cascades down to the floor and then is awkwardly gathered. This must be what it feels like to be dumped by The Gosling, even if you are one of the most glamourous women in Hollywood.
Meanwhile, Cook effortlessly picks up Natalie Portman -- let's be honest, the man can wear a suit -- in a diner. In a long tangent to BV and Faye's story, he plies the former kindergarten teacher turned waitress with honey and 'shrooms, marries her, and, eventually, uses her up. If it is not blindingly clear, record producers are devils. Holly Hunter, briefly appearing as Portman's mother, is as powerless as the southern Baptist Church her daughter attends to prevent tragedy.
If all of this sounds like a more plotting and incident than you may have been expecting from second-phase Malick, rejoice, for the joy here is in the endless scenarios for flirting that are his focus. Song to Song is a dark fantasy where the truth is never the right thing to say, or rather nobody knows the truth in the first place. Malick returns to images of leaves caught in a whirlpool, swirling down the drain as Faye's visual leitmotif.
Parties with celebrity DJs, infinity pools, and expensive hors d'oeuvres are the backdrop while Emmanuel Lubezki's camera sidles up to the actors in a swaying, tentative technique to get as close to their faces as possible while preserving context via the widest of angles. This is not the Mexican maestro cinematographer's usual low-angle shot for Malick, that of coming up behind twirling female-creatures on open beaches.
Rather, it is a new kind of camera move, one that seeks to surreptitiously capture the quixotic unease in the eyes of (all of) the leading characters in oh-so-hip surroundings. The effect is paradoxically romantic and terrifying, simultaneously, equal parts banal and seductive. Malick fearlessly, as has been his wont for some time now, makes room for several diffuse scenarios to slowly gel, while his characters 'play with the flame of life.'
Ultimately, the film is about narrowing down all the possibilities of life and committing to something or someone. The final trajectory of Faye and BV (and, for that matter, Cook) feel puritanically American in intent, but feature a lesbian-sex scene and other bacchanalia. Spoken lines like, "any experience is better than no experience," might offer more insight into Malick's lengthy editing process than vague notions of character arc or comforting purpose. Life is messy and there are ugly truths in our inner struggles for happiness.
Song to Song is a contradiction, but it is also a treasure. Be sure to tip your prostitute; we are lucky to have him.
The film opens in limited release in Toronto on Friday, April 7, via Entertainment One.