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Song to Song at EIFF: ‘It felt as if I’d dropped LSD then watched a depressing porno’

Terrence Malick’s Song to Song is precisely what you expected it to be: that is to say, you’ll either love it or you’ll hate it – and you already likely know the answer. It felt as if I’d dropped LSD, waited a few hours, then watched a depressing porno. In a good way.

Rooney Mara stars as Faye, a wannabe professional musician in Austin, Texas who finds herself embroiled in a love triangle between Michael Fassbender’s ultra-rich producer, and Ryan Gosling’s burgeoning singer (we never see him perform but I think he’s a country artist). Things go much as expected – relationships break down, everybody has sex with everybody, everybody finds new love interests outside the triangle then inevitably is drawn back within it. It’s engaging enough to hold the attention of a moderately narrative-focused audience, but it’s hardly ground-breaking territory. Not that story is why you would ever come to have a Malick experience.

Thematically, Song to Song does excel. It’s an idiosyncratic study of a group of characters on the fringes of society trying to belong. It’s also, in many ways, a film about the trappings of fame and what people do to achieve it – Gosling and Mara’s characters repeatedly sacrifice themselves at the altar of celebrity to get ahead: to gain friends and money. But Malick never captures these outcomes. Instead, the increasing alienation and regret in the personal sphere becomes the focus of the attention: leading to a peculiarly singular tone.

Along the lines of the music biz, Song to Song has been furnished with a large group of stars including Iggy Pop, Lykke Li, John Lydon, and Patti Smith (who actually gets a reasonably large part). Sometimes we get to see them perform (the unnamed festival is clearly SXSW). Mostly, however, they’re lounging around just off-stage addressing the camera and discussing such matters as how much they love getting high etc.

Returning to the comparison in the opening paragraph, the more I think about it, the more that’s an accurate summation of Malick’s recent output. Like physical art, both Song to Song and pornography are less about narrative and more about the fusion of image and emotion. They both seek a pure (although at times complex) set of feelings with minimal story-telling and maximum visual beauty. The caveat, of course, is that you need to rewire your brain to deal with this paradigm shift in movie experience; in the sold-out screening I attended there were many walkouts, and multiple sighs of relief upon the rolling of the end credits.

But, of course, the audio-visual odyssey is what you’ve come for, and it’s what you’ll get. A myriad of cameras have been used here – from the ultra-HD kind, to much more low-res consumer stuff; but it all looks beautiful. Chivo, as per, gets in to his subjects’ faces, brandishing the widest of lenses and swirling around the action. The locations are varied: from ancient temples, to nightclubs (some of the best looking nightclub scenes I’ve ever seen), to swimming pools, and music concerts – and just about every shade of every colour that has ever existed makes an appearance at some point. Each shot is precisely calculated for maximum impact, and yet, together it all feels so weightless (which was, funnily enough, the original title of the film). Take, for example, a shot of Faye on a balcony at dusk. The sun is just peeking out of a skyscraper in the background, illuminating half the frame in a warm orange glow. This shot could only be taken at an exact time of day. The film is 129 minutes long. You do the maths.

The dialogue is slow, nonsensical, and mostly whispered – as well as utilising the collective ‘you’ to describe virtually every character in sight. But the soundtrack, inestimable in sheer length (it would be longer than Baby Driver’s that’s for sure) is pure gold. From Die Antwoord to Bob Dylan, and back via a variety of organ interludes, the soundscape of Song to Song never ceased to amaze me. Perhaps it’s only fitting that this is the case – given the lack of actual performance in a music-based movie. Combined with the dreamy muttering, the dynamic visuals, and what looked like a psychedelic truffle coated in honey, this is a film that drifts along on its own signature wavelength.

Terrence Malick certainly isn’t for everybody, but for those who do enjoy his signature blend of wooziness, Song to Song is an excellent film. It presents an arresting barrage of beautiful images, accompanied by an impressive and hypnotic score, that invites you to float away down it’s esoteric stream of consciousness. If you let it take you away, it’s one hell of a journey.

8/10

 

Featured image: Empire.

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James Witherspoon