A movement from the universal to the particular: that’s what Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder feels like, a year after The Tree of Life. The short period of time that elapsed between the two films—unprecedented in the director’s career—suggests they have much more in common than any of his earlier efforts. Ironically, The Tree of Life‘s all-encompassing perspective on human relationships, faith and the universe itself could have indicated that the film was a final statement in his career or in his life. Instead, what looked like the end was just another beginning—as so often happens in Malick’s stories—and the guy who once let twenty years pass between his second and third movie is now back on our screens mere months after his fifth movie.
This time the focus is quite different. Set in the present, this story follows the relationship between Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko). Neil falls in love with Marina when he is visiting Paris; he subsequently brings her and her daughter to the United States, to live with him in Oklahoma. With little dialogue and the familiar depiction of fleeting moments, voice-overs and natural exploration, the growth and decay of the romance live in the space between each image on screen. We learn that Neil’s feelings are sincere, but somehow his hesitancy prevents him from fully committing to anything in his life. We find out that Marina has her own doubts, that she wants “to be a wife” but is also scarred by a dark past and confused by Neil’s reluctance. Less actually happens here than in other Malick movies, but at the same time this is the purest investigation of love in the director’s career. Two things happen as a result of that investigation.
The first is that we see an amplified emphasis on life in the present moment. Not in the chronological sense, although that has been a factor in Malick’s previous settings, but rather as an enhanced perception of time passing by rapidly, closing doors and making unalterable truths from ambiguity. The Tree of Life grounded its burning questions in the probing of the past, placing a family’s struggle in the context of a millennial journey. To the Wonder has no such frame to wrestle with. “You thought we had forever, that time didn’t exist,” Marina says to Neil at one point. Immediacy is a joy, and a killer. This is the stuff every love relationship is made of, but the Malick treatment—undisturbed by other narrative elements—makes it all the more painful.
The second thing that happens is that a menacing dread looms over the characters. Lead and cadmium poison the earth in Oklahoma. The tide is rising in Mont Saint-Michel. Emmanuel Lubezki’s versatile cinematography can show us numerous scenes, from Tree of Life’s sunny yards to the lunar-surface grayness of this movie. Rarely in Malick’s films has there been an objective correlative like this one. He usually prefers to throw everything together, with no separation to solidify a theme, letting emotion rise from spontaneous contrast. This method is still present here, but it’s joined by a more direct connotation. Not all things are shining, now.
The nature of Affleck and Kurylenko’s romance is reflected in the character of Javier Bardem’s wandering priest – a doubtful soul who’s supposed to comfort others and yet must also acknowledge his unsteady faith. He serves as a link between the lovers’ struggle and the more literal spirituality of Malick’s world view—once again, signalling a clear separation of the film’s components. Rachel McAdams appears as Neil’s ex-girlfriend, recalling at first Christian Bale’s turn in The New World: filling a void with grace and dignity. Marina is not John Smith, though. She comes and goes, unable to reconcile the two impulses she contains within herself, almost like two different women. One is “full of love” for him; the other “pulls her down towards the earth”.
Here in Venice, where the film screened in Competition, many are already saying that To the Wonder is just a patchwork of leftovers from The Tree of Life, and that’s harsh, even despite the end-credits confirmation that footage from Malick’s previous film has in fact been used. In a broader, less derogatory sense, these criticisms might also be true. This film feels like a smaller island in the Malick archipelago, more fragmented and full of things we’ve seen before, but also highly permeable and interconnected with the others, almost in dialogue with them. Several actors were cut completely from the finished version of the film, as usual (Rachel Weisz and Jessica Chastain among them), and just as we can imagine their characters alive somewhere in this universe, asking questions to the sky, we can view To The Wonder’s closeness to The Tree of Life as a seamless, frictionless proximity.