One of my six most anticipated releases of 2013, Terrence Malick’s “To The Wonder” is something of a frustrating experience to watch. While the film is no doubt gorgeous in its look, with some of the most stunning images ever captured on film, it is none-the-less a very cold film and one that is hard to emotionally invest in completely.
The film starts in Paris where Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (an always twirling Olga Kurylenko) start a whirlwind romance, as the two fall head over heels for one another. It is here we witness the beauty of love when a romance is new and fresh and possibilities seem endless (as does the time together). Marina has a daughter, Tatiana, from a previous romance and through an expression of his love, Neil takes the girl on as if she were his own. The three of them appear to be a perfect family and when Neil has to return to the United States for his work, he asks the women of his life to join him. They ecstatically say “yes” and head off to America and a new life. However once the family comes to live in Oklahoma problems begin to arise and the lovers start to drift apart. With Neil focused on his environmental work and Mariana and Tatiana struggling with home-sickness, the perfect love they once shared seems doomed. Tensions constantly arise and disagreements are regular, and the fact that Neil and Marina are unable to marry (due to the fact she is still legally married to Tatiana’s father) causes a problem that the couple are going to have to face up to sooner than later. It comes to pass that Marina’s visa is to expire and she must head home, and due to Neil’s unwillingness to ask her to stay, she does just that. Soon after, the cycle of love continues afresh when Neil runs into an old school friend, Jane (Rachel McAdams), and the two fall in love, but Neil abandons this chance at happiness when Marina returns (after finding Paris a horrible place to live without both Neil and Tatiana, who decides to live with her father) in an attempt to find that love that they shared once more.
Terrence Malick’s previous film “The Tree Of Life” hit me like a ton of bricks when I first watched it. It was one of the most emotional viewings I had ever had in a cinema, and this emotion has continued through multiple viewings. Even though the style of that film is non-traditional, to say the least, I actually found it to be incredibly beautiful. Through fragments of moments, Malick was able to communicate so much. When I heard that he was continuing with this lyrical style for his follow-up film, “To The Wonder”, I was immediately excited, even when it was reported that the new film was going to be more experimental than “The Tree Of Life” and even less narrative based (if that was possible). It has been mentioned many times already that “To The Wonder” is like a spiritual sequel to “The Tree Of Life” and right from the beginning of the film, I immediately felt this. The rhythm of the editing is almost identical and because of this I found it very easy to settle in and observe the new film. I’m sure people who have not seen “The Tree Of Life” may find the storytelling alienating but for me, it was like slipping back into a familiar world; a world I was dying to revisit.
The films of Terrence Malick, particularly the more recent ones, are films that you feel more than anything. You let them wash over you and feel the emotions being presented even though it is being done in a non-traditional way. This is actually the biggest flaw in “To The Wonder” because sadly, I felt (almost) nothing throughout. The main reason for this is that we are never given real access to the characters of Marina and particularly Neil. They remain forever allusive, even though we spend the entirety of the film watching them. We never really know why they are feeling the way they are feeling at any given time; why are they fighting? Why are they sad? Why are they moving? Because of this, it makes it really hard to care about them. Much has also been made that even though he is in the film the majority of its screen time, Ben Affleck only has around six lines of dialogue. I found this an odd choice, particularly when you could see that his character was speaking and yet his lines had been muted. Obviously, Malick wants the voice of the film to be that of the character of Marina, but because of this Neil is never given a voice (literally and figuratively) that deems him to be of any importance and as such ends up becoming a cipher within the film. In actual fact, I think that Ben Affleck has been totally miscast also, and his performance was quite wooden. To my eyes, he always appeared lost, like he didn’t know why he was doing what he was doing.
The girls of the cast fared much better with the performances of both Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams being both excellent. Personally the scenes which featured McAdams I found to be the strongest of the entire film including a truly amazing scene with both Neil and Jane, sitting atop their vehicle while surrounded by a field of bison. For a film about the subject of love, “To The Wonder” features a large amount of despair and sadness, and most of this unhappiness is subjected upon Marina, Kurylenko’s character. Kurylenko is fantastic in both scenes of immense unhappiness and is absolutely luminous in the early scenes when her character is in the initial throes of love. Also most of the poetic narration is heard through her voice.
One character I failed to mention during my synopsis is that of Father Quintana who is played by Javier Bardem. Whilst barely connected to the main story of “To The Wonder” his character proves vital for laying out the film’s themes. Quintana is also arguably the most interesting character in the film being that he is a man who regularly preaches about love and what it is to love, without having any love in his own heart. He is a man questioning his faith and about the existence of God as well as his right to be preaching about a topic he personally knows little about. While Quintana has the potential to be the most interesting character, Malick never seems to follow up the groundwork he has laid out for this character which almost results in giving the feeling that he is from another movie entirely. As it is, his links with the Neil and Marina characters are tenuous at best, but it is his sermons (and narrations) that become most important in regards to the rest of the film.
As expected “To The Wonder” is a stunningly gorgeous looking film. Going into a Terrence Malick film, you know what you are going to get from a visual standpoint and yet his images never cease to amaze me. All of his films are stunningly beautiful but his work with Emmanuel Lubezki is just in a league of its own. This is the third film that the pair have made together and they just seem like a perfect fit. As usual everything is backlit and looks as if it is shot during magic hour but it all just feels so effortless. Terrence Malick just seems to see the world with different eyes than the rest of us and as such he can see the beauty in everything and he proves this with some of the images he comes up with in “To The Wonder”. While there are too many shots to list here, two examples that just wowed me were a shadow of a chandelier on a roof and the movement of the water-drenched sand on the beach of Mont Saint-Michel as Neil and Marina are standing on it.
While the way the story has been told may be alienating for some viewers, I believe the point of the film is still easy to understand. The film is ultimately about the cycles of love but what Malick seems to be suggesting is that the act of falling in love is the most important thing and even when that love has been transformed into something else, the memory of that love will endure, therefore one should always remain open to fall in love and experience love because a life without love is a life that is not lived (a sentiment that is also echoed in “The Tree Of Life”). Probably the most important line in the film is “Love that loves us…..thank you” and sums up the theme of the film brilliantly. However you may be thinking after watching “To The Wonder” if the point of the film is to convey just how great love is in life, why is there so much misery in the film? I guess the simple answer to this is the old “no pain, no gain” line, meaning without all the heartbreak and tribulations we face whilst in love, would we ever truly understand just how magnificent being in love really is?
Overall, there is much to like about “To The Wonder” but the fact that we are never given any real access to our main characters means it is hard to actually care about their tribulations. The film is absolutely beautiful with some stunning images as Terrence Malick continues to evolve his style to an almost pure cinema level. Dialogue is becoming less and less important to him which is true of “To The Wonder” which rarely sees its characters talk. Interestingly, the majority of the dialogue (via narration) is subtitled with a mixture of French and Spanish spoken throughout. While I want to like the film more, after my initial viewing of “To The Wonder” I have to be honest and say that I was ultimately disappointed by it especially by the fact that it didn’t leave me feeling anything (unlike its predecessor which utterly destroyed me). Hopefully over repeated viewings, my appreciation for “To The Wonder” will grow but as of now, despite the number of good things in it, “To The Wonder” is my least favourite Terrence Malick film so far.