Song to Song

MPAA Rating: R | Rating: ★★★½
Release year: 2017
Genre: Drama, Romance, Spiritual Director: Terrence Malick

Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires.

(Song of Songs 8:4)

If Knight of Cups was Terrence Malick’s filmic depiction of the book of Ecclesiastes, then Song to Song is his version of the Song of Songs, an elliptical, poetic meditation on romantic love and human sexuality. The human body, its desires and impulses, its pores and hairs, are all examined with an immersive zeal by Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s roaming camera. On screen, Song to Song is Malick’s most emotional film to date–characters weep and wail with heartache. Yet this emotion never elicited an empathic response within me; as such, it was the least affecting experience I’ve had with any of Malick’s films. Watching Holly Hunter break down in a Sears parking lot, or Ryan Gosling tear up at his emaciated father’s bedside, or Rooney Mara weep in despair at a Texaco gas station, I honestly felt very little (and I’m a feeler). In Knight of Cups, an emotional numbness was the perfect marriage of form and content as it explored the empty pursuits of Los Angeles decadence. For a film all about the passionate, poetic life of musicians in Austin, TX, Song to Song lacks the rich catharsis of a building crescendo or melody. Its emotional ups and downs never elicited actual feelings, only images of them. Like listening to an “important” album from a genre one doesn’t necessarily enjoy, it’s a work of art to admire and ponder, but it never hit me on a gut level.

Song to Song takes the idea of “navel-gazing” quite literally, as characters and the camera all explore Rooney Mara’s belly button with fervent curiosity. It embodies the notion of a cyclical story, one which turns and returns like a revolving record, or a girl twirling in circles in a field or against the Austin skyline. Song to Song might be best described by its previous title, as this is a fairly weightless film, both in its themes and characters. There are lots of beautiful images to behold, and it’s a unique approach to the filmic medium, but only unique outside of Malick’s previous work. While I defended To the Wonder and Knight of Cups–and could be persuaded to defend this film after a second viewing–the critique that Malick is nearing self-parody in Song to Song is not without merit.


In terms of narrative and characters, Song to Song is best summarized by its previous title: weightless. Malick appears to deliberately evade giving much depth to his characters, and the story centers around a love triangle (really, a love heptagon) between avatars. Mara’s Faye could be considered the main character–her voiceover narration bookends the film, and she gets the most screen time–while Gosling and Fassbender are her two primary lovers, the former a budding musician, the latter a deceitful and charming record producer. Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Lykke Li, and Bérénice Marlohe are the other lovers in this convoluted romantic scheme, while a chainsaw-wielding Val Kilmer rounds out the supporting cast. Musician Patti Smith plays a matronly role offering Faye advice periodically throughout the film; portraying herself, she might be the most interesting character in the bunch. Parental roles figure heavily here, meaning they are given actual speaking parts. Mara, Gosling, and Portman’s parents all drift in and out of the picture as these youngish beautiful people try to understand the nature and telos of romantic, sexual love. Their romances, like the film, all feel very experimental, paradoxically embracing both traditional covenantal marriage and the postmodern hookup culture. In this, Song to Song perfectly embodies present-day Western sexual ethics. In our culture, romantic love should be totally free and without boundaries or limits, while at the same time it must be a radical display of commitment and fidelity between two lovers. We can sleep with whomever we want whenever we want, but we also don’t want others to cheat on us or betray our trust. We want to have our cake and eat it too. By its conclusion, Song to Song may suggest that present-day sexual mores are empty and void, and suggests relearning the traditional narrative of sexual expression. I say “may suggest,” because it’s still unclear to me where Malick and Co. were headed with this film. The message and meaning gets lost in the twirling.

Like all poetry, Song to Song will have its devotees and detractors. I find myself somewhere in middle, perhaps in the segue between the melodies, dwelling in the liminal space between the songs. I admired what I saw more than I enjoyed it. If this marks the third of an informal trilogy following To the Wonder and Knight of Cups–maybe we can call it Malick’s “Twirling” trilogy–then it’s a worthy, if imperfect, coda.

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