The emotional detachment in so many of Terrence Malick’s films makes them seem more like metaphysical photograph albums. It’s a bit easier to find the meaning in “Song to Song.” It’s a haunting, doleful meditation on sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, the type of movie that can deeply move you and leave you wondering why.
The story unfolds in the vibrant music scene of Austin, Texas. Rooney Mara is Faye, a rising vocal star; Michael Fassbender is Cook, a grasping, Ferrari-driving producer; and Ryan Gosling is BV, a jealous, salt-of-the-Earth songwriter. Faye is torn between them. Cook and BV are rivals in both the music business and love, but they also are partly friends. The three of them move among real-life music festivals in a running if never truly intimate love triangle.
At the sidelines and occasionally on center stage are Natalie Portman as a teacher; Berenice Marlohe as an artistic French expatriate, and Cate Blanchett as a wealthy single woman.
The story pivots on each character’s axis as their criss-crossing connections collide and undercut one another. Each gets a dab of attention in a romantic drama that resembles a pointillist painting viewed close-up: The individual droplets are lovely, but the overall design is difficult to detect.
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Most of Malick’s signature effects and concerns are here. There is no simple narrative, but vignettes that appear and vanish. The story is pieced together like a montage of disconnected events, gloriously photographed. The women are hypnotic, languid, ethereal, heartbreaking. Their lives are full of mystery — Malick, the great abstractionist, doesn’t portray relationships realistically — but they understand that love alone makes our lives worth something.
The characters spend countless scenes walking across ostentatiously chic living spaces that don’t feel like homes. There is as much voice-over narration as dialogue, all clipped and oblique. “I don’t like to see the birds in the sky because I miss you. Because you saw them with me. Come save me from my bad heart,” Faye tells BV through projected feelings rather than direct conversation.
It has become one of Malick’s mannerisms to fill cameo roles with celebrities, and here the film goes to town. Fassbender jokingly dirt-wrestles a couple of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Iggy Pop explains the real focus of performing music onstage. Patti Smith acts as a mentor to Faye.
There’s also a former film star playing a lunatic who thinks stage speakers should be sliced with a chain saw. Perhaps he’s the one who cut Arcade Fire, Fleet Foxes and Iron & Wine from the film. Perhaps they were lucky.
“Song to Song”
Rated R for some sexuality, nudity, drug use and language. In English and Spanish. 2:09. Kentucky.