It’s become almost a sport to hate Terrence Malick, to mock him, to dismiss him as a parody of his own reclusive, enigmatic image, his films nothing more than pretentious, philosophical wool-gathering. For many the rot set in with The Tree Of Life, his ambitious 2011 hymn to boyhood, growing up and the wonder of existence.

The cinematic equivalent of rubbing Marmite on your eyeballs, the film divided and perplexed audiences, mixing career-best performances from Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, with scenes of teenage panty-sniffing and CGI dinosaurs as a Ronsealed Sean Penn mournfully reminisced that his dad never hugged him and ruminated on the mysteries of creation. Or something. To be fair, while visually sumptuous, The Tree Of Life was a ponderous, pretentious slog, never has a film disappeared quite so slowly up it’s own numbed arse.

Two years later, he followed The Tree Of Life with To The Wonder a wispy, gossamer-thin meditation on love, loss, regret, despair and transcendence that walked a thin line between half-remembered dream and sophomoric teen poetry, the film following Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko’s couple as they fall tenderly in love in Paris and slowly out of love in Oklaholma, begging the question, if you were lucky enough to be in Paris with Olga Kurylenko, why the Hell would you drag her to Oklaholma? His next film, the largely improvised Knight Of Cups, set Christian Bale’s dissolute, disconnected screenwriter adrift in the moral wastelands of Los Angeles and Las Vegas, searching for love and meaning, for salvation, in a series of romantic relationships. Woozy and breathy, To The Wonder and Knight Of Cups are sensual, elusive, elliptical works, finding the poetry in the mundane, the epic in the everyday, and together they form the first two chapters of a loose spiritual trilogy that concludes with Song To Song.

Set against the backdrop of the vibrant Austin, Texas music scene, Song To Song may be the closest Malick will ever come to making a conventional love story, a tale of boy-meets-girl, which sees Rooney Mara’s secretary/housesitter with dreams of stardom Faye romanced by Ryan Gosling’s up-and-coming singer/songwriter BV while Michael Fassbender’s hedonistic, Mephistophelean, drink and drug-fuelled producer Cook tries, metaphorically and figuratively, to seduce them both, along the way marrying and destroying fragile waitress Rhonda (Natalie Portman), collateral damage in his gameplaying.

In a nutshell, that is the plot. But that is not the film. If you’re not a fan of Malick’s work, Song To Song probably won’t be the film to convert you to his faith. But for me it’s damn near perfect. It’s a mesmerising, gauzy meander through the highs and lows of romantic love, a languid, ethereal, emotional journey that sees the central lovers drift in and out of one another’s lives, drift into new relationships, never quite able to shake the memory of each other, to resist their pull, gravity, fate, the Universe and Patti Smith (yes, the Patti Smith playing herself as Mara’s mentor/spirit guide!) the unstoppable forces pushing them back together.

Breathtakingly, beautifully shot by Emmanuel Lubezeki, Song To Song is as formally bold, unconventional and narratively experimental as Malick’s last few films and, in a Summer packed with loud, glorified children’s toy commercials masquerading as cinema, Song To Song is thrillingly, refreshingly adult, a film that expects it’s audience to engage more than their lizard brain and to do a little work themselves, Malick scattering clues for us to piece together the narrative ourselves, an Hiroshima Mon Amour for the SXSW generation.

The performances are as good as you’d expect with Mara particularly good as the closest thing the film has to a protagonist while Gosling’s laidback, effortless coolness makes him the near perfect Malick avatar. Their first encounter, two bored, awkward people, alone at a hedonistic pool party, hums with possibility, the moment where Mara shares an earbud with Gosling so they can share her music may be the most swooningly romantic moment you’ll see on screen all year. Fassbender’s oily Gaelic charm has rarely been better deployed as the demonic Cook whether he’s sleazing Mara into bed, seducing Gosling with dreams of artistic freedom, roughhousing backstage with The Red Hot Chili Peppers or capering like an ape on a Mexican beach, he’s a creature of pure appetite. But he also lends Cook an air of vulnerability. There’s a quiet desperation to the scene where he flirts with and charms Portman’s Rhonda. “I have a condition. I can’t be left alone.” She may be his last shot at happiness, at redemption, and he knows it. He also knows he’s going to fuck it up. Ultimately, the film though is Rooney’s. Pressed against the fence at a gig, her need to be more than just a spectator in life is palpable and it’s her needs, her desires, her hunger, that drives the film.

Idealistically romantic but without a trace of either cynicism or sentimentality, Song To Song is a film to lose yourself in, to surrender to. Like love itself, it is fragmentary, elusive, a puzzle for the soul.

Movie Review: Song To Song
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