Living life "from song to song" or "kiss to kiss" is an idea very much of the last sixty years, its unscripted urgency an enticing and truly romantic mode of being. But often in literature or film that illustrates such a way of life - as with Song to Song - the work itself can fail to connect, being too ponderous, or (worse?) affected. Terrence Malick has been dividing opinion with this study of the Austin TX rock scene and some interlocking relationships within it - sadly the music drifts into being incidental and the details of the relationships take up screen real estate to an almost sickly degree. Is this the point? Reader, I can't be sure.
On the plus-side, what a cast. The virtuosic Natalie Portman, enigmatic Cate Blanchett, the capable-in-every-guise Michael Fassbender, Rooney Mara and Ryan Gosling. Though the focus is laid on the triangle of the latter three, Portman is assuredly great. A late-period Malick film, though, requires its actors to improvise to a great extent - to run with a theme, to be a body moving through a frame, with narrative to be derived and meaning to be discovered later. This aleatory/experimental m.o. is one in which Fassbender initially seems prone to platitudinous stock phrases - so Song to Song is at its best when it allows his physicality to take over, as his Lothario/music magnate spins balletically through side-streets, or when he riffs on a birdcall and re-purposes it as a monkey screech, all simian limbs and low centre of gravity. Gosling fares particularly well, his mellow character coming across like a playful dad on holiday, messing about as the mood takes him and being caught on film. This is Faye's (Mara's) story, however, locating us inside her head - from where we unfortunately see that she's less comfortable in these long takes, a lead without verve.
These musicians hang out with Patti Smith and Iggy Pop, and get into playfights with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. And the soundtrack is often great, but just as often a Classic FM selection wafts in to highlight (perhaps) the timelessness of our subject matter. We'd benefit from more specificity. Smith in fact provides some of the gold and grit that could've elevated this Malickian opus - her recollections of her husband and the ring she bought when he died, her impassioned beat performances of 'Land' and more recent work. But this is a work unmoored - in the years of editing, Malick had gorgeous images and sequences to pore over (Emmanuel Lubezki's static shots of trees in mist, murmurations of birds, even a Tarkovskian pan across a myth-inspired painting). Meditations on nature and art and morality are perhaps too rare, but they need to be rooted in a believable everyday, and the elegantly wardrobed lassitude of a South-Western elite is not the one to go for.
We don't do star ratings here at DI, but I'm going to have to give this a solid three: though it might hit five on ambition, cinematography and the fun of seeing these actors appear on screen together, that's averaged out by the respective 'ones' of plot, dialogue, lack of grain/heft and the literal navel-gazing that it becomes (seriously, is the bellybutton the window to the soul now?). We don't need to see so much exposed female flesh - and it's not prudery but my outworn patience that says so. I can see why five paying customers left the screening I attended, but the trance-like state induced by this film, not to mention its cinematography, should be seen and discussed, even if their end result is oversaturation. Critics have commented on the sex in Song to Song being deeply unattractive, but I think it's supposed to be. "I used sex", one character reminisces confessionally, so at least the premise seems to be that all this is vanity. But why feature so many minutes of characters pawing at one another, Fassbender or Gosling stroking the stomachs of their desired ones? Beware of taking emptiness as a subject matter.
And yet... I love the way Lubezki's camera can locate the viewer somewhere behind Gosling's eyes, or at heart-height as an unseen observer. But how many shots do we need of Mara looking uncertain, the angle giving her Accentuated Pixie Face beloved of Instagram? The fault is not the actor's - this articulation of an inner crisis is assembled in post, rendered in voiceover, leaving her looking blank. (There being so much static footage of Mara's face at the cinema this month, see A Ghost Story instead.) Too many times I wanted to draw a thought bubble beside her reading "Why does Terrence Malick keep following me around?" He's certainly in pursuit of something numinous, and the spirit may be willing, but the flesh gets in the way.