Last year Jason and I saw Knight of Cups, the second in Terrence Malick’s trilogy (after To the Wonder). I disliked it so much that that I wished the main character (played by Christian Bale whom I normally like) dead, then wished myself dead; and argued for hours afterwards. Jason thought it a wonderful view of life in all its cinematic glory. I was frustrated at the lack of dialogue, voice-overs saying trite things about love, male fantasy cliches of women cavorting around naked, then being used and discarded, and the absence of any plot. Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman and Teresa Palmer stood out as luminous, interesting characters but it was pointless with the protagonist walking around being self-absorbed and with no respect for them. Oh, it was infuriating.
So there we were at the cinema last night to see Song to Song, the third in the trilogy. Once again, Jason loved it; I hated it.
Song to Song revolves around Faye, played by Rooney Mara, who hangs around music festivals and supposedly wants to be a singer. We never see her write or sing a note. As a consequence she is not credible as an artist, so everything that is supposed to flow from that doesn’t hold up. She wants sleazy producer Cook (played by Michael Fassbender) to help her but falls for musician BV (Ryan Gosling, charming and plays the piano so is almost credible).
Cook is a bad news bear but Faye keeps going back for more and says at one point “I thought any experience was better than no experience.” This is just one of the bland things the characters say in voice-overs (“Open your eyes.” “What if I don’t become an artist?”).
The party scenes look like Playboy mansion footage dressed up as art: Cook is debauched, and treats women like possessions to play with and discard.
Rooney Mara wears a blank expression for much of the film (we see glimpses of her happy with BV but they’re inane scenes of her dancing around). She is a passive, ambivalent character and as a result – without even the music to make her interesting – she’s unlikeable. If she is supposed to be a struggling artist, there is no evidence of it: Malick shows her flitting from one lover to another; and if the love affair is supposed to be the focus, I simply lost patience with her poor choices.
The only time I felt for Faye was when Patti Smith appeared, and gave her some advice. Patti Smith is fabulous and, for me, is the heart of this film.
Natalie Portman as Rhonda is strong and compelling but again is given hardly any lines and becomes a powerless figure. There is a telling scene where a prostitute tells Rhonda that she aspires to be a teacher: she seems to have more control over her life than Rhonda, who was once a teacher but is now with Cook, and seems to envy the prostitute her independence. Rhonda has given away more than her body.
As for Cate Blanchett, Peter Travers sums it up in his review for Rolling Stone: Malick reduces “this soaring comet of an actress to meandering around barefoot while musing about her tragic past.”
I could go on and on about the characters’ wanderings, random self-conscious dancing and trailing fingers … and the film did. It felt so long I worried about getting deep vein thrombosis.
One thing I looked forward to though was the setting at South by South West music festival in Austin – an event that I’ve heard is super fun, and have never been to. But we don’t see the performers (except briefly) and there is none of the joy of being in the audience at a live music event. Anyone who has been to a concert knows that there is something special in the atmosphere of a good live show, but there is none of that euphoria in Song to Song.
Jason liked it as a dreamy contemplation of life. But to my mind, we’re capable of dreamily contemplating life ourselves; the director’s job is to forge all those incoherent bits into a film. It is satisfying to watch a story unfold from beginning to end – however inventively told – but this series of floating scenes fails on that score. Not only does it fail to make sense of these elements of life or turn them into something more universal; it renders the characters’ lives even more mundane. In fact, it’s like someone telling you about their dream.
Does a film have to tell a story? Yes, I think so. Terrence Malick is less interested in straightforward plot than pursuing a singular vision; he is more an artist than a film director. But that does not mean that it’s good art.
On the plus side: Patti Smith, Ryan Gosling, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett and lush, visual cinematography. And it’s always a treat to go to the cinema.
What terrible films have you seen recently?