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Song to Song

July 9, 2017

Song to Song (2016)
Director: Terrence Malick
Actors: Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender

Synopsis: Three players in the Austin, Texas music scene fall in and out of love.

Review: You won’t find a more ardent champion of the work of Terrence Malick than this writer, but Song to Song is the first time where his signature aesthetic, to me, felt more reductive than transcendent.

There have been two points over which I’ve always defended Malick (and will continue to defend him on his first seven films). The first common criticism is that his films are in some way “inferior” because they refute the desire to grasp onto fully realised narratives and character arcs. That always struck me as a misguided accusation. To use a literary analogy, it would be like chastising an abstract poet for not writing a page-turner of a novel. The other recent fad in the anti-Malick bandwagon is to lament that his films are increasingly hermetic in their earnest prioritising of rather remote, moneyed, prettified crises. Again, that had always appeared a redundant reading when Malick’s films are so clearly interior, detached and depoliticised, and anyway, Knight of Cups is the only work where Malick’s protagonists present as obviously rich and louche.

I say all this because, sadly, Song to Song will provide more mileage to those Malick naysayers, and I’m more inclined to jump on board with their misgivings this time around. Where Malick’s previous films always transcended the immediacy of their social setting, and the central characters’ troubles appeared sympathetic and profound, here the three main players’ woes are irredeemably precious, bourgeois and narcissistic. Where all those previous films were in some way purposeful exercises in distanciation and existentialism, this is almost a conventional drama – although captured in his now distinctive, free associative form. Thus that drama plays out unconvincingly as a fatuous exposition of faux emotional grandstanding. This time, Malick only seeks to valorise the emotional malcontent and relationship dilemmas of his disaffected players. They don’t seek transcendence and salvation from their lot, just pity and luck in finding the right partner.

Malick’s visual language plays out as a microcosm of the wider problems to his approach in this film. While the cinematography, documentation of architecture, and editing all remain unparalleled (I doubt I’ll see a more beautiful film this year), it does present as rather relentless and formless. The performative improvising of the actors, portentously caressing each other over barren beds in uninviting modernist apartments, really does come across as far too overused a trope now (a couple of times is fine, but there must have been over a dozen such sequences here). Also, the affair between Rooney Mara and Berenice Marlohe’s characters came dangerously close to female objectification and could easily be satirised as a form of uncool, softporn male lesbian fantasy.

Last year’s Knight of Cups, a not wholly dissimilar film visually from Song to Song, was ironically one of Malick’s finest films yet, but this shows that with an askew dramaturgy, and the incorrect application of his rather fey, doom-laden and improvisatory aesthetic, Malick will only end up providing the sort of film his worst critics will gorge on all day long. (July 2017)

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