Like all Terrence Malick’s films, To the Wonder is art at its purest. This impressionistic take on a
man (Ben Affleck) as he goes through a major relationship with Maria (Olga Kurylenko)
and a lesser fling with Jane ( Rachel McAdams), is told almost entirely in voiceover, which blends
with poetic images, a range of classical music, bits of dialogue. The actual
conversations are so rare you can count them. Despite its clarity of purpose, though, it is not the best example of an art film you’ll ever see,
and far from the best Terrence Malick.
To the Wonder may
be Malick’s latest bold attempt to redefine what narrative cinema can be, but
it is a pallid descendent of his classic Days
of Heaven, which shares a controlling use of voiceover, an enigmatic nearly
silent hero (Sam Shepard) and beautifully photographed scenes of the open land.
The primary voice is Marina’s, who begins her narrative among
images of Old World grandeur. We first see her in the rapturous early days of
her affair with Affleck’s character. (He’s not named in the film, but the
credits seem to think we know he’s Neil). They walk moodily along the beach, and ascend
to Mont St. Michel, as she explains, “we climbed the steps to the wonder.”
They traipse through the Luxembourg Gardens in the rain with her young daughter,
and soon they are in Oklahoma, where the film becomes as flat as the landscape.
The voiceover — Neil
and others leap in from time to time — suggests the disconnectedness of all
their lives. She’s bored; he’s more bored. There are many scenes of her walking
through wheat fields. When she goes back to France, he briefly takes up with Jane
and then Jane walks through wheat
fields. Nearby, is a church and Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a priest with a
voiceover of his own and a crisis of faith. Sometimes he and Marina cross
Malick is clearly rejecting the novelistic narrative thrust
and deeply drawn characters we might expect on screen. As he did far more
successfully in Days of Heaven, he
asks us to read into his images, the way we do with the more compressed genres of
painting and poetry. And this film doesn’t seem self-indulgent, the way Tree of Life did when its long,
impressionistic creation-of–the-world sequence shattered our attachment to the
family history we’d been seeing (in nearly as much voiceover and poetry as To the Wonder). This feels more like Malick has made a series
of serious, inexplicable misjudgments.
The characters are so vaguely sketched they become hollow. Where the
farmer played by Shepard in Days of
Heaven was quiet and enigmatic, the character of Neil is empty. Not
Affleck’s fault; he was given so little to work with. Who is this conspicuously
unhappy man who hardly speaks? We observe him at work as an inspector testing
soil for contaminants: is he a crusader or just a guy who needs a job? Did he
ever love Marina or was he just swept along by her devotion?
The voiceovers themselves are often as vapid and as precious
as the film’s pretty but cliched images. “You thought we had forever. That
time didn’t exist,” Marina’s voiceover says. We see water flowing, sun shining
on it. Malick has always been a better director than writer, but such generic
images are not what you expect from
someone with his visionary eye.
He does creates a trajectory, from the birth of the love
affair to the end. Near the film’s conclusion, Bardem’s character visits the
sick and old and dying, and the life-to-death cycle creates a tone of sad
despair, of impossible love. The final image,
of Mont St Michel again, reminds us how wonder always fades in the light of
reality. There are still touches of Malick’s sublime art here, but they are impossibly
outweighed by ordinary earthbound failure.
Here’s a trailer with Bardem’s voiceover, which gives a
skewed sense of the film, and make its theme of love sound more cogent than it