Terrence Malick has made a masterpiece, Days of Heaven, close to 40 years, and that the film over-sizing of the shade has unfairly haunted his career ever since. What could they be up to? Today, the film remains as eloquent as ever, timeless and purely Malick. A triangle romance that plays a role in a drama of love, jealousy, envy and treason against the visually stunning landscape of the early 20th Century Texas farm, the history shaped by a young girl voiceover.
It is as contemporary as in a film shot five years ago maybe.
Malick did not make another movie for 20 years, and then returned with a rapid pace. But in his most recent work, the approach, derived from Days of Heaven has curdled. To the Wonder (2013) and Knight of Cups (2016) are poetic, trials, full of stunning images and philosophical questions in voiceover. But even considered as poetry, they are more bland than effective, full of posing and pouting. To The Wonder could play as a place of self-parody, as morose Ben Affleck and his French bride stroll through the open spaces of Oklahoma, speaking in exaggerated lines. Knight of Cups is almost impossible to watch, with Christian Bale as a degenerate, a screenwriter in Hollywood who fleet although cliché party scenes and wonders about the daddy issues.
The new drama, one Song to another, is lesser Malick compared to his greatest works, but manages to be intelligent and to commit to at least the first half. In To the Wonder and Knight of Cups, characters disappear under all that puffed-up philosophizing. A song to the other attached himself to the reality with another triangle romantic, this time against the backdrop of the music scene of Austin, Texas. Or contemporary as a film shot five years ago maybe. Take years, with its changes is another Malick trademark.
Rooney Mara is the central figure, Faye, a musician. She is sleeping with the Cook, a record producer played by Michael Fassbender, hoping to continue his career. They knowingly, at each other, until it falls on Ryan Gosling as a BV, a songwriter who is of Cook’s protégé at first, but who broke with him, after Cook steals his copyright. Faye hides her ongoing relationship with the Cook of his new love, creating a swirl of ethical dilemmas.
The actors make these characters vivid, within a structure that is notoriously Malick. Faye describes the strategy in voice-over: “I thought that we could just roll and fall, live from song to song, kiss for kiss.” The film mirrors that approach. It is built on fragments, disconnected moments of time, and in view of various characters, points of view and with more voiceover than dialogue. There is Faye, and Cook in his bedroom, Faye and BV in one of a series of great places that she housesits (moving locations to create a sense of a character drifting). Behind-the-scenes of concerts, Cook stands next to Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine or chats over a glass of wine with Iggy Pop. Finally, BV questions Faye about his relationship with the Cook. She responds with a series of lies. Although Faye realizes that the life of a song to another may not work forever, the film uses the tactic to good effect, bringing together a compelling story of love and deceit.
To the wonder?
Malick’s typical of the images of nature, used as interstitial scenes, and easily parodied, is here replaced by scenes of music festivals, including SXSW and the Austin City Limits Festival. The music turns out to be nothing more than scenery, in spite of a parade of familiar names and faces. We rarely hear more than a few lines of the performance: the Black Lips, here, Iggy Pop. Once, Faye find themselves on stage with a guitar, but we never hear a lick. We can only guess what kind of music BV written – quasi-country, perhaps? Among the many, Patti Smith is the only one that matters. She plays a version of his down-to-earth self, giving Faye’s advice and sing in My Blakean Year.
Emmanuel Lubezki (best known for the force of Gravity, Birdman and The Revenant) was Malick’s director of photography from The New World (2005). Here, he gives Austin a glossy look, but the visuals never become an overwhelming distraction.
The inflated bad poetry style of the weakening of the films of Malick, is reduced to a minimum
Fassbender and Gosling are great fits for the film, each adding to the energy and charisma that is so often absent from Malick. Fassbender brings the honesty of his character so transparently evil, self-destructive nature. Gosling is a charming boy, and convincing when it turns out that BV is not as naive as he first appears.
Mara is a different story. It starts well enough, her hair in a schoolgirl ponytail that disguises Faye’s steely ambition. As the film goes on, Mara (rather than her character) becomes a note and tedious. We lose patience with Faye just when we should be empathising with it.
In the second half of the Song to the other, Malick expands the circle of characters. Cook takes up with a waitress played by Natalie Portman, who brings a sad elegance to an underwritten role. BV special offers, in short episodes, with his family (Linda Emond as his mother and Tom Sturridge as her brother), a new love played by Cate Blanchett, and an ex-girlfriend, played by the musician Lykke Li. Her scenes with Gosling are strong, and include an animated scene in which they dance to Del Shannon Runaway.
The answers for the new film at its SXSW premiere recently were for the most vicious
In spite of its weaknesses, a Song the other stands as Malick’s best since The Tree of Life (2011), an eloquent of the memory about the family and the loss that has largely worked. The answers for the new film at its premiere at SXSW recently, were for the most vicious, almost embarrassed to Malick for not having his Days of Heaven, self, unreasonable standard. The only way of judging it on its own, in the 21st Century, the experimental conditions.
These are the words that come clearly demonstrated if one considers that the original title of the Song to the other was Weightless, which, as Malick said at SXSW, comes from Virginia Woolf. In her novel The Waves, a character wonders how to go on “without, weightless and visionless, through a world weightless, without illusion?” Like Malick’s recent work, The Waves is more a poem than a story. Replace the voice-overs literary monologues and you have an exact model of a movie of Malick. And as one Song to the other, Woolf’s novel raises the open question of whether the fragments of a life can never coalesce into a whole.
The Wave is not Woolf’s most accessible, or in a popular book, and one Song to the next is not likely to be Malick. But it reveals a true artist, always at work.