To The Wonder (2013)
You’ve gotta feel sorry for Michael Sheen and Rachel Weitz. It must quite the highlight of one’s professional experience, to work with one of the most critically lauded directors currently drawing breath, an enigmatic and aloof figure who has shunned all media exposure for over forty years, crafting his hermetically sealed celluloid prayers with his usual troop of technical acolytes only for your entire performance to languish on the cutting room floor. These then are Terrence Malick’s continuing working practices, his productions now moving in relative Lightspeed in comparison to the twenty year hiatus between Days Of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, he following his divisively divine Tree Of Life which blessed cinemas a mere two years ago with another romantic hymn to the spiritual and immortal, the eagerly awaited To The Wonder. After shooting hours and hours of footage Malick finds his film organically in the editing room, a quick scan of the credits revealing that he exhausted no less than five editing artisans with his latest psalm to the mysterious canyons of consciousness, and he is not beyond cruelly jettisoning entire characters and sub-plots if he feels they are superfluous to he and his characters existential wrestling with our shared and more intangible issues. The search for the sacred among the profane continues with To The Wonder and whilst I can murmur along with some of the critical disappointment this is a palpable and pulsing work, in its final conclusions a seraphic companion to The Tree Of Life’s celestial celebrations.
Immolated with a prologue that is intimately cool, with a wispy, grainy iPhone camera footage surreptitiously caught in Paris an initial spell is cast, as American engineer Neil (a horizoned Ben Affleck) plunges into a passionate affair with the spritely and soaring Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a beatific brunette with the soul of an actuating Aphrodite. After touring the ardourous territories of the capital of romance Neil forges a strong bond with Marina and her 10-year-old daughter, committing himself to them the trio are soon decanted back to his home soil, the golden auroral prairies of Oklahoma replacing the urban pectore of Western Europe. Neil becomes distant, aloof, almost a phantom* character in the film, relegated to the sidelines as the story centres upon Marina’s introverted quest, unsure of her new surroundings and resistant to the assertions that their love will flourish in these new natural surroundings. But love is a many splendoured thing, and fissionable fractures soon divide the two as Neil begins to doubt his choices, acknowledging a spark of attraction to his school friend Jane (Rachel McAdams) as Marina finds herself increasingly isolated and banished from affection or endearment. With Javier Bardem as a local priest plaughed with a crisis of faith of his own who offers some small morsels of affection and support to his parishioners To The Wonder is a film of souls in search of sustenance, purposed and grappling with the transient questions that face us all.
Like Marina and Neil’s divisions this film has snaked a fracture line through the critical and academic community, with scholars, scribes and savants assuring us that Malick shouldn’t get a free pass due to his immense and imposing stature on the global cinema stage, it’s a fair point although the claims of his treading water with his latest project or the more withering of dismissals claiming that he has essentially self-parodied himself should rest squarely in the eye of the beholder. Unquestionably the same designs and techniques which are commonly refered to as ‘Malickian’ are on full display – breathless, wispy, inquisitive interior monologues? Check. Sumptuous, transcendent ‘magic hour’ cinematography with radiant streams of nourishing light saturating and bleeding the frame alongside water and liquid sourced iconographies? Double check. A rejection of formal narrative scenes to drive forward a plot through character interaction or expositionary dialogue? Triple check with flashing lights and blaring klaxons. This is the crux of To The Wonder as this is very much an evolution in form, as the visual techniques he has perfected of a fleeting, evasive and swooning beauty has been deeply embedded in a nucleau symbiosis, punting his cinema further out into abstract waters, with mere glimpses, strobed shards of scenes presented within the broader church of his intentions. The film is essentially a two-hour montage of image and sound, freting and fleeting as it interrogates its flickering souls, like a wandering mind caressing the contours of consciousness it ponders the purlieus of a fading dream. Accusations are rife, of a meaningless mosaic of images which on inspection are heretical, there is clearly a pulse and purr of locations and the symbolic cartography visited in one section of the film is shadowed an silhouetted in the next, to excavate one example in an early aria Marina and Neil wander hand in hand through a granite mud shoreline, beaming at their amour despite the gloomy skies. Later in the film Neil is seen trudging through a vacant yet physically similar mud-caked environment back in industrial America, this time alone in a purgatory isolation, his segregation illustrating his sacred contamination. This is film or cinema as a river, buttressed and tumbling down the canyons of meaning and interpretations, its jetties and harbours the ebbs and flow of image and sound.
Malick’s work is infused with love, from the romances of Badlands and Days Of Heaven, from the platonic affection of comrade and community in The Thin Red Line, from the love of family and maternity in Tree Of Life and between the indigenous and alien in The New World. Consider this which just occurred to me, from his film titles alone the semiotics when strung together in any combination evoke his cinema – lands and tree, heaven and world, wonder and days. The marketing for the film is rather misleading as this is clearly Marina’s story with the other characters orbiting her struggles, whilst Bresson arranged his actors or ‘models’ as he called them to pose as hollow vessels Malick arranges his mannequins to stand fertile and be impregnated with our own beliefs and sins, a semblance of performance paying lip service to modern cinema fictions. Characters are internalized, it is never any overt event or relation which seems to steer or alleviate their flickering malaise, Marina is afflicted with a distant ennui rather than any sense of physical, social or cultural isolation with her decant from Northern Europe to the widescreen vistas of North America, and it is fascinating to see Malick’s camera dance and weave through shopping malls and streak past drive-in joints and roadside churches, perhaps another autobiographical element is on display as he lived and studied in France during that twenty year seizure of production before returning to his homeland of Texas where he still resides. I would have liked to have seen more Bardem’s loosely alluded spiritual combat, in one uncertain moment he anoints a (supposedly) death row denizen with the holy scripture but his eyes and movement betray an uncertainity to his empty and remote reassurances, his inclusion redundant to the central ‘plot’ – and this is why the film demands a second viewing. The absence of god is the absence of love, we mortals wandering the blessed earth in wide-eyed reverent wonder, seeking succor in the arms of similarly fallen souls with all our foibles and failures refracted back upon us, thus overall this is another beautiful, nervously moving and entrancing film, although I must admit that I didn’t suffer from as many tear inducing crescendos that his other work has inflicted.
Back to earth with a few technical points and curiosities. I was intrigued to see Malick’s wife credited as the productions ‘Ambassador Of Goodwill’ in the final crawl whatever that may mean, and according to the credits some trademarked material has been lifted from Tree Of Life, whether this was offshoots or the resurrection and reappropriation of half-submerged visual ideas remains to be seen. It does beg a curious question however, that this may well be the second installment in a potential trilogy as it very much feels like a companion piece to the musings and inquisitions of Sean Penn’s character refracted through Marina’s similar spiritual sojourn, and for the first time this is a film in Malick’s universe which is fully set in the present day, a contemporary canticle in relation to the historical framing of his previous psalms, which seems to reverberate with the rumours and glimpses of other future projects. So what is next? Well, the Christian Bale starring project which famously produced a glimpse of the Malick in his natural habitat would appear to be next, it was supposedly shooting back to back with another picture which may be the mysteriously titled Sword Of Cups or that could be an entirely different project, as ever the mystery surrounding his productions will keep the faithful guessing. In the meantime however To The Wonder is a divine picture which proves to difficult to decipher, but like the mysteries of love and life that constant struggle is made more potent and pleasurable when accompanied by such incredible incantations;
* Purely unintentional, but we can’t miss this classic of the newly anointed Oscar Winner….