Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Love: To the Wonder

Terrence Malick is enjoying a fit of productivity, and judging from the results he's either had a major epiphany or has been having a crisis of existence while dabbling with psychotropic drugs.  As readers of this blog likely already know, in the span of forty years, Malick has released a mere six films.  The fifth was 2011's breathtaking The Tree of Life, my pick for the best picture of that year and easily one of the most stunning (aesthetically and experientially) of the last decade.  With Tree of Life, Malick's already rather floaty interests seemed to officially break free from the confines of traditional narrative. He'd always been an impressionistic director, one interested in capturing an ethereal vision of the Earthly -wind blowing through a field, a watercolor sky, sunlight broken by patterned leaves- and To the Wonder is a romance in theory, but more of a cataloging of picture postcards in practice. The film is Malick's first of a whopping four films slated for release by the end of 2014, and where The Tree of Life read as the director's philosophical dissertation on the relationship between man and the cosmos, To the Wonder is something different: bite sized, enclosed, beautiful, and a little empty.  
Perhaps it's inevitable that whatever followed the grandeur of Tree of Life would read as a little dull and trite by comparison, and so To the Wonder feels like a palette cleanser.  It's a light sorbet, a lovely lilting shadow, and more of an exercise in advanced practices of cinematography than a fully realized story.  The shred of plot it does have is exceptionally loose and patterned off of simple repetitions.  In the film's lush prelude we watch as a couple, Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck), wanders France aimless and in a heightened, lustful state of love. They silently embrace as the music ebbs and flows, Kurylenko's voiceover guiding us from Mont Saint Michel to Luxembourg gardens, the camera following shadows, breaking apart bodies, keenly interested in profiles, backs, and establishing shots that dwarf the characters.  It's an opening fit for a truly epic romance, but switches quickly to the American heartland.  Our couple moves in together, he is American and brings her to a boxy subdivision in Oklahoma.  The switch in landscape is enviably handled, of course, as no one seems to know how to capture the sublime from the utterly mundane in quite the way that Malick does.
In America, we watch as the couple's relationship dissolves. The film's early interest in the tides at Mont Saint Michel provide a visual parallel for the progression of their relationship.  They rise and fall, embrace and fight, and seem to be driven by purely carnal, natural, near animalistic behaviors.  There's a near total lack of actual scene and conversational dialogue, and so we're left speculating on just how deep their connection is. Does Marina connect with Neil for a green card? Does Neil ever speak? Do they have anything in common other than their passions?  Is she suffering from something like bipolar disorder? We don't know. There's a mythic quality to the characters here that's quite different from the religious, god-like power of the parent figures in Tree of Life.  In To the Wonder our couple seems to just be stuck, trapped wandering for eternity aching for some freedom the gods have felt they do not deserve.  Thus, we see everything doubled and tripled and repeated. Everyone moves as a darkened shadow, the cameras are constantly following at a character's back, hair is always blowing, people are always staring at each other, rooms are always empty, yards are bare, distractions will emerge.  We are pulled from house to house, space to space, and everything is wide open, yet completely claustrophobic.
I can't object to it, though many may find the film's general trajectory (or lack there of) extremely dull. The film worked, for me, as an aesthetic object.  Taken as a loosely bound collection of impressionistic emotions, a thought in progress on the nature of love and the failures of marriage, it seems to work. Where I found it far less effective were the places where Malick seemed to want to introduce some sort of literal spiritual engagement. Javier Bardem is wandering around the film as a sort of depressed Spanish priest, and I'll be damned if I know exactly why. We watch him visit and avoid the people he's supposed to be helping, and though it's clear he has lost his way in a manner similar, perhaps, to Marina, the connection seems imposed and unnatural. Any moment where Kurylenko's narration is disrupted by Bardem's took me away from the    To the Wonder's hypnotic element, which is a shame.  The film needs to be enigmatic. It needs to swoon, escape our understanding, and immerse itself in the startling clash between the beautiful and the malignant. Everything is lovely here, but it's the creeping sickness of the relationship (and the environment) that resonates most powerfully.  Leave the silly priest out of it.

4 comments:

  1. I can't wait to see this one, and as I'm afraid of spoilers I didn't read all of this. But what I read was interesting.

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    1. I don't think it's possible to have spoilers in a Malick film, really. Feel free to read on!

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  2. Glad you liked this one. I loved it as well, and agree that Bardem's subplot wasn't nearly as interesting as the main one at hand. And yeah, hard to argue with people who consider this film trite. That's their right, you know?

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    1. For sure. I find myself closer to conceding on this film with those who find the whispering and navel gazing more pretentious than poetic. Tree of Life was an epic, this is a little sonnet.

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