Each new film that Terrence Malick, the once notoriously unhurried director, has made in the rash of projects since The Tree of Life (2011) evinces a further regression, an increasingly witless sacralizing of male-female coupledom. The title of Malick’s latest, Song to Song, set in Austin against the backdrop of that city’s South by Southwest music festival, is just a preposition and an s removed from Song of Songs, the Old Testament celebration of sexual love (which, unlike this movie, is genuinely lusty); the biblical evocation signals the vaporous quasi-spirituality to follow from the feeble philosopher of man-woman relations. The auteurist affectations and tics that have come to define the various labile dyads — always rupturing and reconciling beneath crepuscular skies — in Song to Song and its immediate predecessors, To the Wonder (2012) and Knight of Cups (2015), have produced in this viewer a condition that I can only diagnose as heterophobia.
As with most Malick movies released during this century, there is only the barest frame of plot in Song to Song, the particulars of which are often incoherent or vague; even character names seem to be superfluous, prosaic details that can only interfere with the director’s lofty vision. The one protagonist’s name I did catch (the others I learned from scanning the press materials afterward) is Faye, played by Rooney Mara. She is an endeavoring musician (evidenced by the electric guitar she half-heartedly strums once or twice) in a relationship, achronologically charted, with Ryan Gosling’s BV, a songwriter and associate of Cook (Michael Fassbender), an Armani-clad rock ‘n’ roll executive and debauchee who once employed Faye. The boss and former underling betray BV, the ramifications of which are haphazardly parceled out; in the aftermath of this tryst, Cook will seem to be on a more righteous path when he marries Rhonda (Natalie Portman), a bottle blonde whose choice of profession — she’s a kindergarten teacher supplementing her income with hash-slinging — telegraphs an innate goodness soon to be ludicrously corrupted.
Of this central quartet, Faye emerges as the most prominent figure, her dominance sealed by the reams of voiceover — that most fatiguing of Malick trademarks — that Mara solemnly intones. For the first fifteen minutes of Song to Song, I held out hope that Malick’s prime positioning of Mara, an actress whose tremendous powers of observation give Carol so much of its erotic pull, indicated a return to the pleasingly odd, fully fleshed-out heroines of his first two movies: Sissy Spacek’s Holly in Badlands (1973) and Linda Manz’s Linda in Days of Heaven (1978). But despite the screen time she’s allotted, Mara’s Faye often scans as ornamental — as much so as the models and strippers who clutter Knight of Cups, Malick’s obtuse peek into the spiritual void of Hollywood.
In fact, so enervated, so physically insubstantial is Rooney’s character that we rarely see Faye engage in the kinetic activity most often performed by Malick’s women: twirling. The aspiring rocker barely seems to have the strength to stand erect. BV often holds his lover aloft in the countless games of airplane they play while lolling in bed; out in the world, he carries her in his arms as if she were a tuckered-out toddler. Tasked with having to move from point A to point B, Faye leans against a brick wall as she advances forward, often stopping to touch every crevice in the surface. The action is common enough in Malick’s oeuvre, an instance of the magical mystery tour promised by even the briefest period spent outside (all part of “life’s journey,” to use the absurd subtitle of his previous movie, the 2016 documentary Voyage of Time). But this putative moment of transcendence — to the wonder! — plays like a horribly directed rehearsal for The Miracle Worker, or like Christina’s World rendered as a live-action cartoon.
When prone, however, the blank guitarist gets up to all kinds of mischief. “I took sex, a gift. I played with it. I played with the flame of life,” Faye says, off-screen, in Song to Song‘s final quarter. Her transgressions include not only those romps in chic, sterile rooms with Cook but also a lavender interlude with a Parisian (given a dog but no occupation or reason for being in Texas) played by Bérénice Marlohe. This listless episode of sapphistry, which, at its most lubricious, reveals a hand burrowing below a waistband, follows an earlier incident meant to suggest same-sexing as the utmost in depravity: Terror darkens the faces of Rhonda and Faye after they’ve kissed, their intimacy the bidding of Cook.
The moment, underscored by the bugged-out peepers of Mara and Portman, is too laughable to provoke outrage. But I remain baffled by what Malick holds up to be the most exalted order of human closeness: heterosexual coupling that seems perversely sexless. BV and Faye nuzzle and cuddle, he teases her with a caterpillar, she propels herself ever skyward on a swing. “You wanna go back to a simple life. I want the same,” she addresses her lover in voiceover before a final embrace on a rock during the magic hour. It is the simple life of children, playmates unsullied by carnal desires.
Song to Song
Written and directed by Terrence Malick
Broad Green Pictures
Opens March 17, AMC Loews Lincoln Square
Read Bilge Ebiri’s rebuttal to Melissa’s review here.