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'To the Wonder' separates true Malick fans from the rest

Text by Jon FROSCH

Latest update : 2013-03-18

Terrence Malick’s new film, "To the Wonder", is a bold, beautiful experiment, in which the director delves into his obsessions with a single-mindedness that is bound to alienate as many people as it enraptures.

Terrence Malick’s new film, “To the Wonder”, might as well come with a warning: anyone who found his 2011 Palme d’Or winner “The Tree of Life” loopy and impenetrable is bound to break out in hives within 15 minutes of this one.

As the movie’s star Ben Affleck quipped last autumn, when it premiered to sharply divided reactions on the festival circuit, “[‘To the Wonder’] makes ‘The Tree of Life’ look like ‘Transformers’”.

Malick has often eschewed narrative conventions, relying on stream-of-consciousness montage set to classical music (Wagner and Tchaikovsky in this case) rather than plot or exposition, and voiceover rather than dialogue.

Still, his new film is indeed his most experimental yet: a ravishing visual poem about uncertainty in love and faith, and about the lonely space that can grow between two people in a couple, between a man and the God he worships, and between a woman and the country she left behind.

“To the Wonder” may very well be Malick’s least satisfying and accomplished film (faint criticism, given a career consisting of a handful of masterworks doled out over the course of 38 years). But the new movie nevertheless finds Malick’s unabashedly lyrical style -- cameras bounding after and swirling around bodies communing with nature and each other – and his unmatched gift for capturing memories and sensations through images, as well as his reach toward the grandest of themes, on dazzling display.

Wrapped up in the film’s formal daring and impressionistic grace is also an insightful portrait of a flame between two incompatible lovers – stoic American Neil (Affleck) and European free spirit Marina (Olga Kurylenko) - igniting, dimming, and finally flickering out.

A trans-Atlantic love triangle

“To the Wonder” opens with the igniting phase of their relationship: an unspecified period of time in France, where the two frolic (the classic “Malickian” mode of movement) in Parisian parks and at legendary landmark Mont Saint-Michel. A shot of wet sand undulating below their feet as they stroll along the beach is an image of sensuality and danger, hinting at both the romantic connection forming between the two and the disruptive forces to come.

Malick then whisks us from the coast of Normandy to the cornfields of Oklahoma, Neil’s home state, where he brings Marina and her young daughter to live with him. The Middle American landscape, as conjured by the director and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, is rapturously beautiful: green and golden, flat and wide, with an endless horizon and prairies dotted with herds of livestock that stir and roam as if in a ballet.

But there are signs of things amiss beneath the stillness and silence. Neil, who works as an environmental inspector, discovers a toxic substance in the town’s water supply (man abusing nature is a recurring theme in Malick’s work). Marina and her daughter at first revel in their exotic surroundings (the discovery of a new world being another classic Malick motif) - skipping through pristine supermarket aisles, a county fair, and open fields, their fingers grazing new flowers - but soon grow restless outside their cosmopolitan comfort zone.

And other figures edge toward the couple’s existence. Rachel McAdams plays a corn-fed, all-American hometown beauty from Neil’s past, and it only takes a few glimpses of her in ranch boots to realise she is the better match for him. Malick gives the pair the movie’s most sublime scene, in which they sit on a car surrounded by buffalo: a vision of humans, nature and modernity coexisting in absolute harmony.

Meanwhile, Javier Bardem shows up as a local priest as conflicted about his relationship with God as Affleck is about his romantic options. The difference is that while the priest expresses his doubts directly via interior monologue, we perceive Neil’s indecision mostly through subtle shifts in his face and body language (as an inexpressive man, Affleck gives a quietly expressive performance).


“The Tree of Life” (2011)

“The New World” (2005)

“The Thin Red Line” (1998)

“Days of Heaven” (1978)

“Badlands” (1973)

The people who float through “To the Wonder” remain, to a certain degree, ciphers. But Malick conveys the fluctuating rhythms and moods of the central relationship - from intense and playful to chilly and distant, to explosive, and then back again – through his use of space and motion; he either films Neil and Marina merged and moving as a unit (lovingly intertwined, circling each other teasingly), or places them, frozen, in opposite corners of the frame (he lingering on the staircase, she in the bedroom).

We also grow to intuit their contrasting natures: she is impulsive, a dreamer and explorer, initially drawn to the idea of a new life in an unknown land, wrapped in the arms of a man who grounds her; he is kind, but taciturn and pragmatic, incapable of making her feel at home or mustering the passion she ultimately seeks.

“To the Wonder” may be abstract and elliptical, but it is also bracingly lucid in its evocation of the difficulty of achieving and maintaining true intimacy in love.

It is, moreover, a testament to Malick’s ongoing grappling with big, unanswerable questions: how we relate to each other and to our surroundings, and how greater cosmic and spiritual concerns come to bear on the choices we make.

A director and his obsessions, loved or loathed

Malick has already been derided for his distinctly unfashionable suggestion (one that especially permeates this film and “The Tree of Life”) that, for some of his characters, God may provide a sense of meaning that human relationships cannot.

Others have said that “To the Wonder” is the work of a director on autopilot, recycling flowery visuals and earnest turns of phrase to the point of self-parody.

It seems that we want our directors to be “auteurs”, with trademark styles and thematic obsessions – but only to a point.

If “To the Wonder” rubs people the wrong way, perhaps it is because Malick burrows more single-mindedly than ever – and with a defiant lack of context or background - into the deepest fears and feelings of his characters, their most instinctive, un-ironic responses to what and who is around them. Neil and Marina do not move or sound like anyone we know in real life, because Malick is not interested in realistic human behaviour or expression, but rather in the quietest, most child-like whisperings of the soul.

Displeasing as it may be to the movie buffs and critics who see Malick’s films, those whisperings can sound a bit like high school poetry when coming from characters of presumably ordinary intellect and cultural exposure.

Though the famously press-shy Malick has not confirmed it, “To the Wonder”, like “The Tree of Life”, is probably deeply personal; Malick was raised in Oklahoma and lived for a long time in Paris, where he married and divorced a Frenchwoman. The image that closes the movie, as well as the gradual emergence of Marina as its main figure, implies that “To the Wonder” may be the director’s apology for his personal failings and his elegy for a love lost.

In other words, it’s slipperier and more enigmatic than anything Malick has ever done – but the heart of the film is bold and sincere, for those who are willing to discover it.

“To the Wonder” will be released in the US on April 12th. It is currently out in France and the UK.

Date created : 2013-03-16


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