Cinema Review: To the Wonder

 

DIR/WRI: Terrence Malick  •  PRO: Nicolas Gonda • DOP: Emmanuel Lubezki • ED: A.J. Edwards, Keith Fraase, Shane Hazen, Christopher Roldan, Mark Yoshikawa • DES: Jack Fisk • CAST: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem

Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) love one another in France.  They visit Mont Saint-Michel and spend time with Marina’s daughter in Paris.  Difficulties arise following their move to Oklahoma and prompt Marina to seek help from the parish priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem).  The priest struggles with his faith in the face of contemporary troubles.  Marina goes back to Paris, but unhappiness provokes her stateside return, while Neil engages in a brief affair with Jane (Rachel McAdams).

Summarising the plot for a Terrence Malick film is perhaps superfluous.  He favours meditations and asking unanswered questions in whispered voiceovers over conventional narrative structure and character development.  Dialogue is sparse.  Natural lighting, thoughtful sound design and classical music, the elements of his familiar style, create a veritable cinematic experience, providing reprieve fromthe bloody violence and banal histories offered by other commercial fare.  His films constitute one of the most distinctive bodies of work in cinema history.

The Thin Red Line heralded Malick’s return, he having disappeared after directing two classics in the 1970s, Badlands and Days of Heaven.  His take on the Pocahontas story, The New World, developed his wonder at the natural world and his questioning of divine presence.  The Tree of Life proved his boldest film yet, with the most daring chronological shift since 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Whythe dinosaurs?  That film confounded or baffled many.  To the Wonder follows the path Tree laid down.

The tall buildings in which Sean Penn’s character remembered his childhood in The Tree of Life marked Malick’s first foray into a contemporary setting.  To the Wonder shares that film’s fluid camerawork, with few static shots, but Malick updates the suburban and household settings of his 1950s piece to the 21st century.  Again working with DOP Emmanuel Lubezki, he lights kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms so as to make them enchanting.  Their hair blowing in the breeze, Malick’s female characters dance and run in wheat fields bathed in sunlight; now they also dance in supermarkets, where Tatiana, Marina’s daughter, exclaims, ‘Everything is beautiful.”’ Images of trees and running water that recur throughout his work feature in To the Wonder, though perhaps less prominently than in The Tree of Life.

Though his style and determination to work on his own terms distinguish Malick as perhaps the ultimate auteur, he employs a remarkably collaborative approach to film-making.  Along with Lubezki and regular production designer Jack Fisk, he works with five credited editors.  Daniel Lanois contributed to the sound design, and Hanan Townshend, whose music featured in The Tree of Life, contributes original tracks that blend in seamlessly with music by the likes of Henryk Górecki and Arvo Pärt.

Actors contribute through improvisation, working without a script.  They perform dramatic situations in vignettes, often wordless, where gesture, facial expressions, glances and touches are more significant.  Characters develop plot points in voiceover, but more frequently they ask questions that Malick sees arising from the situations his troupe enact.  Lacking the complex flashbacks, time shifts and dream sequences of The Tree of LifeTo the Wonder is easier to follow.

Malick shifts his focus within family life from childhood and parenthood to relations between man and woman, love and marriage.  He provides no inexplicable surprises (no raptors here), but there is evident wit in alluding, for example, to the contemporary world’s spiritual emptiness by having convicts act as witnesses to the couple’s civil marriage in a busy court.  Malick explores these themes with questions that echo those asked in The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life:  ‘What is the love that loves us?’

Malick deploys his extraordinary visual flair in enlivening the most banal events:  clearing dishes, shopping, a family enjoying a day out.  Improvisation with actors underpins his search for authenticity.  “Stop being so serious,” Marina calls out.  Neil plays with lamps in a motel room.  The couple engage in flirtatious tomfoolery on a train.  Ponderous voiceover detracts from the desired spontaneity, but his approach is naturalistic, showing events that we can easily relate to.

Such intense realism provides the first element of Paul Schrader’s ‘transcendental style’.  Schrader identifies disunity between man and his environment that culminates in decisive action as the second part.  In To the Wonder, Neil investigates problems with the soil and water table in Oklahoma.  Industrial complexes loom in the background, and machines seem to attack the earth.  Neil, an easygoing, earthy character, is caught up in an environmental crisis that threatens the community in which he lives.  Fr Quintana struggles to reconcile his absolute belief in God with his difficulty in finding evidence of His existence as he deals with the decrepit world inhabited by single mothers, prostitutes and prisoners.  Malick’s films are not about resolving such disparities, but transcending them.

Bardem’s troubled priest voices a Christian/Catholic perspective less obvious in Malick’s previous works, which can be read as more general metaphysical ruminations.  Fr Quintana quotes from the Lorica of St Patrick.  He believes God is present everywhere but struggles to see him.  He wonders where Christ leads him and calls on Christ to teach him how to see.  Such pleas resemble Pocahontas’ calling on Mother, Private Witt’s belief in the beautiful light and ‘all things shining’, and young Jack’s asking to see what He sees.  Malick posits the priest’s need for reassurance from God with Marina’s search for love.  ‘If you love me,’ she says in thevoiceover, speaking of Neil, ‘there’s nothing else I need.’ Is Malick suggesting that the love for and of another human being and thepriestly love of god reflect aspects of the same divine presence?  Who knows?

Malick’s films, though incredibly beautiful, can leave contemporary audiences bewildered and dissatisfied.  More audience members walked out of a screening of The Tree of Life than any other film I’ve seen.  Filmgoers unfamiliar with Malick’s work probably expected something quite different from a film starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn.  That Malick’s films exist in commercial cinema is perhaps awonder.  An admirable companion piece, To the Wonder should appeal to those who liked his earlier films.

John Moran

12A (see IFCO website for details)
112mins
To the Wonder is released on 22nd February 2013

To the Wonder  – Official Website 

 

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