On Monday, I saw my first movie of 2017, Song to Song. Here is Richard Brody's review from his New Yorker blog:
Terrence Malick is a romantic idealist. His films revel in the unity of the virtues, of beauty, truth, and justice fused in an ultimate realm that leaves its glimmers on Earth and finds its ordinary place amid humanity in the form of love. Even more than his flowing, fragmentary, allusive methods, it’s his transcendental world view that renders him grandly untimely, that makes critics who are smitten with television’s cynical “darkness” repudiate the cathedral-like sublimity of his vision.
In his new film, “Song to Song,” Malick does something new with his familiar technique: he builds his cathedral from the ground up, filming mainly in his home town of Austin, Texas, and anchoring the movie on a starkly clear framework—a simple story of couples in doubt and conflict. But within his story of a shifting romantic triangle he develops both a teeming, harshly emotional web of relationships and an overwhelming, rapturous variety of visual experience. Forging under pressure a new way of telling familiar (and family) stories, Malick also displays a conspicuously painterly boldness, a sort of cinematic Impressionism that locates an indelible force of light and detail in the stuff of daily life.
It’s common practice when writing about a movie to offer at least a sketch of the plot; with “Song to Song,” that banality becomes an act of criticism—and of enthusiasm—in itself. That’s because, despite Malick’s daringly collage-like assemblage of images that only dart across the surfaces of their narrative elements, the movie has a rich, complex, thoroughly imagined plot of a novelistic amplitude. Going into detail about the story is, above all, proof that the movie has a story—that Malick is not a captive of his finely crafted style but, rather, able to deploy it to realize a dramatically engrossing world.
The names of the movie’s characters aren’t mentioned, with the exception of its protagonist, Faye (Rooney Mara), who’s pursuing a career in music and lands in a relationship with the record-company mogul (Michael Fassbender) for whom she had been working as a receptionist. With him, she has gotten used to a life of comfort, but she’s not doing much with music. At a party, Faye meets another young Austin musician (Ryan Gosling), who is something of the impresario’s protégé—he’s signed to a deal and being groomed for stardom—and she, the musician, and the mogul become something of a “Jules and Jim”-like trio, jetting off to Mexico in the rich man’s private plane and cavorting freely on the beach. But on that Mexico jaunt Faye—during a side trip to an abandoned monastery—realizes that she has fallen in love with the young man, and this becomes painfully clear to the mogul. Soon after the return to Austin, the mogul shamelessly flirts with a waitress (Natalie Portman), a former kindergarten teacher down on her luck, and eventually they marry.
On the basis of this classic setup of an unstable triangle, Malick goes on to build a wide and passionate tangle of new relationships and long-standing bonds. The mogul’s dealings with the young man fall apart, but the mogul and Faye aren’t done with each other; they still have a sexual relationship—and he offers her a record contract. Faye and the young musician break up; he meets a former girlfriend (Lykke Li) and gets involved with a socialite (Cate Blanchett), whom he meets at another fancy party. Faye gets involved with a Parisian artist (Bérénice Marlohe), whom she meets by chance. The mogul, despite being married, frequents prostitutes (one of whom, played by Jaylen Jones, speaks insightfully about her work) and drives his wife to despair. And, through the turmoil of erotic and professional distractions, Faye and the young musician (Gosling) find each other again. While the romantic entanglements tighten and slacken, the lovers’ families are woven among them. One of the movie’s strongest presences is the waitress’s mother, played by Holly Hunter, who delivers lines that ring like hammer blows: “You need money for a lawyer; the law’s no help for people who are ruined.” Linda Emond also plays a key and memorable role as the mother of the young musician, and, as Faye’s father, Brady Coleman invests just a few lines and glances with a deep, world-worn wisdom.
The music world is also woven into the story, with a sharp and self-deprecating backstage anecdote delivered by Iggy Pop, and, above all, with the recurring, majestic presence of Patti Smith, as herself, who serves as a mentor to Faye and as the movie’s tough-mindedly romantic philosophical conscience. “Song to Song” is filled with music, both applied to the soundtrack and performed onscreen by musicians and actors, and the spontaneous bursts of dance that arise, whether at parties or onstage, in a crowd or during isolated moments of flirtation and courtship, give the movie the feel of a musical, one in which the music arises from within and emerges in action.
Malick brings this mighty story to life in a copious array of images of a breathtakingly generous, gentle beauty. The cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki creates plunging, whirling, beatifically graceful, seemingly borderless images that gather light lovingly and avidly—and catch the light with which each of the film’s actors seems to glow. The filmmaker appears to allow the performances an unusual degree of freedom to create their actions in front of the camera, but the images never seem either subordinate to performance or constraining of it. Rather, the actors give freely of themselves (Gosling’s self-conscious whimsy adds some notable moments of comedy), while the camera, in sharp attention to gestures, glances, textures, and faces, and by way of some soul-shuddering closeups, gets past mere performance to the seeming core of character.
“Song to Song” offers a dazzling profusion of perspectives and angles, in some of the most radically inflected points of view since the heyday of Dziga Vertov. Malick brings his characters to a sharply varied range of places and spaces (with special attention to Austin and its surroundings), evoking a wide realm of experiences through architecture and décor. (The movie owes much to the production designer Jack Fisk, one of Malick’s key collaborators ever since his first film, “Badlands,” from 1973.) These images mesh and clash in a vast mental space that’s defined by the film’s mosaic-like editing. (No other recent film has as intricate and original an editing scheme.) The characters’ lines of dialogue are spoken, most often in voice-over, holding the narrative together and pushing it ahead while allowing the images to flow in an associative freedom that makes almost all other movies look, by comparison, like the stodgiest vestiges of filmed theatre.
As in his previous film, “Knight of Cups,” Malick makes art—his art—the subject of the film. By centering “Song to Song” on young artists struggling to find their way into the business and into their own finest vein of creation—while they’re also struggling to find their way into the world and make the intimate connections of which they dream—Malick catches life at its most dynamic and its most unstable. The boundless aspirations and ardors of young people are themselves the core of his romanticism. Without nostalgia and without sentimentality, this seventy-three-year-old filmmaker looks to the heart of his own inspiration, his own impulses, and creates a cinema that, with the creative command of his own life experience, feels more exuberantly youthful than that of most Sundance phenoms.