Picking Up the Pieces
Terrence Malick’s most recent film, which received its UK theatrical release this weekend, is readily being described as the completion of a cinematic trilogy. The thematic unity of ‘contemporary soul-searching’ in Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2015) and, now, Song to Song, alongside the aesthetic consistency of their highly fragmented, narrative-resistant forms, begins to justify this claim. However, critical dismissals that the veteran director’s last three feature-length films are ‘interchangeable’ overstate the case. Each of these semi-autobiographical films in fact offers a distinctive analysis of transitional years in the director’s own life, enabling them to dialogue fruitfully with one another.
To the Wonder most markedly differed from Malick’s preceding filmography in its shift from ‘contrapuntal narration’ to what could best be described as collage narration. Whilst past works such as The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2006) allowed different characters’ voices to comment upon a shared narrative, To the Wonder juxtaposes the story of a tragic love triangle alongside a priest’s personal struggle with spiritual aridity. These individual plot lines are held out of focus to allow the differing trials and eventual victories of love to interpenetrate and propel one another. This relationship between eros and agape is revealed when the couple, Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), ‘climbed the steps to the wonder’ of the garden cloister at Le Mont-Saint-Michel and embrace one another at the opening swell of Wagner’s Parsifal: the archetypal account of romantic love’s transformation into divine love. When they eventually realize the incompatibility of their relationship with Marina’s past marriage, it is Fr Quintana’s (Javier Bardem) interior turn towards love that serves as the pivot for Neil and Marina’s own lives, as his quiet wisdom and service through the sacraments helps to reintegrate the lost and found.
Song to Song highlights the shadow side of this power to transform both self and other simultaneously. The effusive love of Fr Quintana is replaced by the nihilistic void of a music producer named Cook (Michael Fassbender), said to be modelled on Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost. As Cook looks upon the blossoming relationship of Faye (Rooney Mara) and BV (Ryan Gosling), his two musical underlings, he remarks: ‘they have a beauty in their life that makes me ugly’. This realization only serves to inspire greater attempts to draw others into the gravitational pull of his own spiritual deformity. He uses his industry power to betray BV and to lure Faye, ending their relationship, and he uses his wealth and status to ensnare an innocent young waitress (Natalie Portman), with even more devastating consequences. These events impact painfully upon the waitress’ close-knit Christian family, as well as upon BV and Faye’s future relationships; premised as they are on attempts to fill a void with widening bands of sensual experience. It is only when BV and Faye find themselves flung out of Cook’s orbit and can resume their relationship, that the possibility of redemption resurfaces.
Knight of Cups, the centrepiece of the three, traces the same journey from disordered desire to redeemed love through just one character. The protagonist, Rick (Christian Bale), is a burgeoning Hollywood scriptwriter who chases after women, fame and fortune to distract himself from his painful familial situation. The spliced narratives of the multitude now make way for numerous overlapping narrative frames for this one life: Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a tarot card reading and a childhood fairy tale, all compliment and compete with one another in establishing the unifying thread of Rick’s life. The fleshing out of the underlying narrative is even more fragmented. Malick restricts himself here to stitching together shards of memory and a haze of dream sequences. A car careering off the road is left to communicate Rick’s early interior chaos; images of a leaf blower cut in as his wife demands that he leave her; a joyful jump from a pier denotes his later willingness to commit.
It would be wrong to view such cinematic collage as artificially imposed from outside. As Alasdair MacIntyre notes, the precise danger of hedonism is that it can reduce life to ‘a succession of moments’; meaning that a person fast loses the thread of their own life’s journey and is unable to track how they have been led to a given point. Therefore, for those who have inhabited such a life, the only thing left to do is reconstruct their past in order to build a better future and to recognise the forces, both good and evil, that shaped them before and which will shape them again. This is precisely what Malick achieves in this trilogy of works and it results in a profound analysis of divine immanence. The spiritual significance of every experienced event, whether sacred or profane, is uncovered: leaves caught in a whirlpool embody the threat of man’s downward descent into the vortex of sin, a street light hung up in the dead of night reveals the fragility and power of grace in a fallen world. This is art not content with mere depictions of the good life, but instead with providing the waymarkers needed to get there.