Thursday, June 13, 2013

To the Wonder

Grade: 83/A-

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life was such a crowning achievement (my pick for the best film of the decade so far) that anything that comes afterwards is going to be seen as a lesser effort. Even with that in mind, To the Wonder has received what’s easily the most muted reception of any of Malick’s films, with some critics regarding it with outright scorn. It’s true, To the Wonder is likely the weakest film Malick has ever made. That’s hardly a condemnation, though, and its virtues are more than enough to make it a must-see.

The plot of To the Wonder is fairly simple: Marina (Olga Kurylenko) is a Ukranian single mother living in Paris with her 10-year-old daughter. She meets American traveler Neal (Ben Affleck). The two fall in love and move back to America, but their relationship goes through a series of ups-and-downs as they separate, reunite, and separate again. Meanwhile, their priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), goes through a serious crisis of faith.

Much has been made of how personal the film is to Malick, but while the relationship between Affleck and Kurylenko is clearly inspired by Malick’s own life, Malick has purposefully obscured the specifics to make the film more impressionistic. To the Wonder is less based in incident than any of Malick’s other films. Indeed, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki was correct when he stated that the film may be Malick’s most purely cinematic work. Neil and Marina’s names are barely mentioned within the film, and while they have arguments, the words are often intentionally buried within the sound to make the arguments more abstract. Most of the dialogue that is heard is via narration (yes, even more so than most Malick films), and it’s intentionally obscure, often dealing more with the concepts of love and faith than anything else.

Malick has essentially taken the impressionistic rhythms of The Tree of Life’s first third and applied them to a feature, making less of a story and more of a filmed poem. Many will likely find the film to be an exercise in self-parody, and true, the film is sometimes maddeningly nebulous. It’s less about characters than figures, less about a single relationship than all relationships, and some of the sidetracks it takes aren’t wholly successful. Neil’s tryst with an old flame (Rachel McAdams, who seems deeply uncomfortable on the screen) doesn’t have the same gravity as the rest of the film, and a scene between Kurylenko and a visiting friend turns the whispered prayers of the narration into clunky dialogue.

But those on To the Wonder’s wavelength will likely find the film liberating, not to mention beautiful. The film deserves credit for playing as a darker mirror image to The Tree of Life, a film about surrendering to the mystery and accepting the unknowable. To the Wonder is not hopeless, but certainly more tentative about this acceptance. Neil and Marina, like almost all couples, have taken great joy in the surface part of their relationship, but have great difficulty maintaining their love. The same can be said of Father Quintana, a man who no doubt found love for God in his early life but now wonders if anything is truly there for him. Are our relationships with one another, with the universe, with the spiritual true or shallow and one-sided? To the Wonder may not be Malick’s greatest film, but as it hits its emotional peak in its final minutes, it proves as vital as any of his works. It’s about the joy of fleeting pleasures (making love, experiencing nature) and how lasting ones- love, God, happiness- may be outside our grasp.

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