AVAILABLE ON DVD AND BLU-RAY: Now
RUNNING TIME: 108 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Neil is an American travelling in Europe who meets and falls in love with Marina, a Ukrainian divorcée who is raising her 10-year-old daughter Tatiana in Paris. Marina and Tatiana relocate to Neil’s native Oklahoma, where he takes a job as an environmental inspector. After some time, the couple’s passionate romance cools. Marina finds solace with the Catholic priest Father Quintana, who is undergoing a crisis of faith, but Tatiana begins to feel homesick. Sometime later, Marina tells Neil that her visa has expired, and she and her daughter return back to France. Neil reconnects with Jane, a childhood friend….
25 years elapsed between Terrence Malick making his second and third film. Now, he seems to be churning them out more and more quickly, with no less than three projects in post-production. Perhaps the 70 year old feels time is running out and wants to get all his filmic ideas out there before it’s too late?. In any case, his work is getting more and more strange. Who would have expected the guy who made Badlands to interrupt a later film for half an hour to show the creation of the universe? Some might say his films are getting increasingly ‘arty-farty’. Some might say pretentious. I would agree with those two comments, but would also add words like beautiful, poetic, dream-like, unique. Malick does seem to be making films more and more just to please him, but in these days of garbage like Man Of Steel being huge hits and commercial cinema dumbing down more and more, we should treasure filmmakers like him. They are increasingly thin on the ground.
Saying that, it’s a wonder that he seems to be able to make his films without any interference. I don’t think he has ever had a big box office hit, and yet he seems able to waste as much footage as he wants. Would you believe it To The Wonder had performances from Michael Sheen, Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz, Barry Pepper and Amanda Peet that were all dropped from the final cut, and yet actors and actresses seem to be queuing up to work with him. Malick has an incredible mystique about him much like Stanley Kubrick, only more so. I’m not sure I’d place him quite up there with Kubrick, and yet you can make a fascinating comparison between the two. Both filmmakers are so similar and diametrically opposed philosophically. For example, they are both utter perfectionists and their films can have a certain ‘remoteness’ if you’re not emotionally and philosophically attuned to them. yet one tends to pre-plan a film to the letter and one tends to make things up as he goes along [To The Wonder had the cast-members shoot all their scenes without actually having a screenplay]. One tends to be negative about humanity in his work, one tends to be positive. One tends to be cynical, to find the darkness in things, while one tends to be emphasise the beauty in an almost sentimental way. And, unlike Kubrick, Malick is quite clearly, unashamedly, religious, though he has his own views about a ‘higher power’ which are not quite the same of those of conventional Christianity.
So here we have To The Wonder, and I should say right away that this if you hated Tree Of Life, you’ll probably hate this even more. It’s a much smaller-scale story, and may not have dinosaurs and Heaven, but it’s an even harder film to get ‘round’ unless you’re a fan of this director. I have become one, so within minutes I was thoroughly enjoying it, and yet you would have be totally blind to see how it would leave your ‘average’ viewer [and I use that word meaning no disrespect] totally cold. I reckon that if I had watched it at another time, I may well have been rather bored. Some films are meant to be viewed when you are of a certain mindset, in a certain mood. Last night, I was ready to appreciate a much more abstract way of storytelling than most filmmakers employ, to get into the strange, esoteric vibe that Malick creates. The best way to approach To The Wonder is to not expect to see a normal narrative with the features you would normally see. In fact, on a first viewing it’s probably best not to even concentrate. Instead, just let the images, the narration and the philosophy just wash all over you.
Reduced to its most basic level, To The Wonder is a very simple story of a relationship. We open with Neil and Marina in the full flushes of love, and then trace the development of this love. The tale actually holds few surprises. It’s the way it’s told that makes it the movie so different, unless you’re familiar with the style that Malick seems to be refining in his films. Scenes are very short and cut to the bone. Editing within them elliptically breaks all the rules. Characters are portrayed visually in their relationship to nature. The female characters, especially Marina, seem to constantly dance around in a very ethereal manner. The sun is constantly shining through trees and backlighting characters. In fact, the sun, who could be God, is a character. Characters narrate their thoughts, some of which are easy to interpret, some of which are very cryptic. Very serious music often plays in the background. What is different to some of Malick’s other work is that dialogue is not present very much at all, and the film just doesn’t need it. Generally though, this is pure Malick, his style taken to such far extremes that it verges on the edge of parody, and yet it’s stunningly beautiful….if you like this style. The cutting within scenes for example: what should be jagged is actually soothing. The film manages to get through its plot very quickly, with events often passing as if in a dream, yet feels entirely unhurried.
So what is it all about? Is it really about lofty, philosophical issues, or should we just take everything at face value? It does seem to be saying that one’s interpretation of love may not actually be what real love is. We don’t really get to know Neil, and this is in a film where Ben Affleck [good director yes, good actor no] being in it isn’t a hindrance, but we do get to know Marina, albeit in a way that gives us a rounded human being, flaws and all, and which asks us to work out why she is the way she is. She seems to be a person who can have everything she wants, but still doesn’t really know what she wants, except unconditional love. The ravishingly gorgeous Olga Kurylenko is virtually made love to by the camera in this film; in fact, I barely noticed Ben [probably a good thing] half the time. And then there’s another strange, ambiguous ending which in its own way is almost as puzzling as Tree Of Life’s, if far more low-key. For a start, you’re obviously meant to make up your own mind as to whether it’s a positive or negative finish. The final minute contains some of the most beautiful shots in cinema of the last few years, and how they were achieved without breaking Malick’s credo of only using natural light I have no idea.
Some parts of To The Wonder don’t work as well as they should. The subplot of the priest seeming to question his faith sometimes comes across as being not only an annoying digression from the main story but also a bit heavy-handed, though it no doubt meant a lot to Malick and is essential to the film’s celebration of wonder, to be lost in total awe, whatever it may be in wonder and awe of [here, mainly love and God, though all of Malick’s work is in awe of nature]. I don’t think Malick has yet resolved some of the issues he likes to explore on screen, like existentialism versus spirituality. But thank God he is still out there doing what he loves. This maddening film, a film of moments rather than events, of impressions rather than depictions, is art at its highest level, though actually it probably wouldn’t seem so out of place in the 60’s and 70’s, pure proof that cinema has regressed. Not too many seem to have enjoyed this film, and perhaps even less have ‘got’ it [I’m not sure I did], but I doubt this bothers Malick too much. These days I seem to find myself ploughing through so much crud as a regular cinema-goer, so every now and again I need a film that will regain my faith in movies. To The Wonder is nowhere near perfect – for a start it’s rather remote and cold for a film about love – but it has still done the trick this time. Even if I only understood a quarter of it, in a small way I feel it has enriched my life.