In a scene in the film Song to Song, Michael Fassbender and Ryan Gosling float, weightless, on an airplane. Or at least, it seems like they do, until the camera shows that they are standing on the chair arms, pushing themselves against the ceiling. Weightlessness feels special in the film, but the manufactured nature of the scene feels disingenuous. This feeling of discomfort in the attempt to create a moment is a pervasive feeling throughout the film.
Of the movies shown in theaters, there are different types for different crowds. Mainstream movies such as DC, Harry Potter or Marvel movies are for everyone. They are big-budget movies with expected big returns. Movies like La La Land and Arrival are designed for smaller audiences. The budgets are smaller, the expected crowds are more niche and the releases are made for selected theaters. Beyond that are the “artsy” films that focus more on art and less on making money. Somewhere within that last category lies the categorization of Terrence Malick’s Song to Song.
If film were to be described like literature, most directors write prose, while Malick writes poetry. This is not necessarily a good thing. Most words spoken in Song to Song are through voiceover narration, delivered airily, precisely and slowly. Sound overlaps between the cuts so that the audio is almost never synchronized with the visuals. If the characters do have names, they are unnoticeable, as everyone is referred to by pronouns.
The story boils down to the relationships and intimacies between people, specifically relating to the four characters played by Fassbender, Gosling, Rooney Mara and Natalie Portman. Characters are intimate with those whom they should not be, and never quite find what they really want.
Ambition and desire find a crossroads in the amorous connections. Mara plays an unknown musician, who introduces herself as an unfeeling person. She meets Fassbender, a music producer, and Gosling, another aspiring musician. The two of them go after Fassbender for his connections and ability to improve their professional standings. He is clearly bad news, and warnings abound about the ways in which he will change people. Mara loves Gosling, but her desire for success has her secretly in bed with Fassbender as well.
The power complex of the film centers around a concert venue’s music festival. The fence that keeps dreamers from performing is one to which Fassbender has the proverbial key. He claims that he wants people to become free, while instead binding people closer to him and his will. With Gosling, Mara is carefree; with Fassbender, she is ill at ease. The beauty of the cinematography is repeatedly noticeable.
Still shots of gorgeous composition are interspersed throughout the film. The camera movement feels, at times, like dancing. Emmanuel Lubezki is the director of photography, a position in which he won Best Cinematography at the Academy Awards for three years running.
Fassbender is rich and powerful, and has a power to influence people to his will. Women who find themselves spending enough time with him begin to act differently simply to please him. Fassbender is manipulative but claims to want women’s freedom. Mara comes to him with a need, Portman comes to him with nothing. He is a false mask of hope. But there is something more at work in Song to Song.
In the medium of film through visuals and audio, Malick is able to conjure a sense of texture. Mara slowly runs her fingers over any surface she stands near, and in the moments of human contact, it is in this slow, gentle touch that the viewer can almost experience the sensation for him or herself. There are also great amounts of symbolism and power at work. Choosing aspirations over love resonates timelessly. The title comes from a quote about the aimless love Mara and Gosling dreamed of, but were never able to achieve.
There are also parental issues that each of the protagonists deal with except, most importantly, for Fassbender. It is impossible to ignore the positive qualities of the film. However, there are too many faults in the movie. Its excessively atypical style is one that feels uncomfortable at best and pretentious at worst. The lack of names, the editing style of non-synchronicity and the overbearing voiceovers are inordinately noticeable. The poetic storytelling feels like compensation for something else lacking.
The plot comes across with a vagueness. Mara, the musician, rarely plays music. She and the two men go abroad for no discernible reason. Every main character has a moment during which the camera pulls in close to watch a single tear roll across his or her cheek. By the third such shot, the moment feels weary and elicits nothing. Malick’s film does not show someone untalented at work.
To some degree, the poetic film cannot be properly evaluated upon a single viewing. There is much to pore over and understand, a possibility of misunderstanding and improper consideration of the film’s themes. At the same time, film is best as prose and the unique build is far from ideal. Song to Song has art to it, but it is mostly impressionistic. The art can give the inkling of a feeling, but it is not quite complete. The spaces feel like emptiness.