To The Wonder is out on Blu Ray and DVD today – surely a reason to celebrate, given that this is the most recent film from one of America’s most highly regarded living film directors. However as well as being a fine director Terrence Malick is generally thought of as a perplexing one. Whatever we might think about To The Wonder, it’s probably not that it’s shallow.
Malick must be one of the few movie directors who have attempted a PhD at Oxford University, and the only one to have translated the weighty German philosopher, Martin Heidegger. This background no doubt informs all six of his films, but it is much more obvious in the four he has made since 1998’s The Thin Red Line after returning to directing after a 20 year break. Certainly Badlands (1973) seems less burdened by meditations on life.
It’s obvious that the man has a philosophy. A strong waft of metaphysics is not the only thing that makes Malick’s films distinctive. They all feature heavy use of voice-over narration, and To The Wonder is no different. These narrators are the four central characters in the film, in fact their voice overs seem to almost completely replace dialogue. Ben Affleck’s character Neil doesn’t utter a single word that is not part of his voiceover.
This narration-heavy approach has three principal effects on the film: much of the story appears to be told in the past tense, creating a sense of nostalgia and melancholy. Malick may have his background in secular philosophy, but now his films have more cosmic (specifically Christian) concerns. He is seeking to create a spiritual film, and he also uses narration to set up a distance between the actors and their actions, you might say a sense of detachment from the dramas and suffering of life. The problem with all this is that it can be tricky to figure out what exactly is happening. The Wikipedia synopsis is useful for explaining what you’ve just witnessed.
Broadly, Neil meets Marina, played by Olga Kurylenko, in France where they fall in love. Their romance starts on a highpoint with a trip to Mont Saint Michel in Normandy, also known as Le Merveille de l’Occident (ie the Wonder of the Western World). Neil and Marina return to his home in Oklahoma where their love falls apart. Neil then meets new love Jane (Rachel McAdams), although this affair is fairly short lived. Marina returns and, after a few more bumps in the road, departs again. Through all this, a priest, Father Quintana played by Javier Bardem, grapples with separation from God, delivers sermons and prays.
Drama, at least drama rooted in psychological realism, is not Malick’s chief concern. Instead the story is part a philosophical dialogue, part a mystical journey and partly a prayer. Quite how you respond to it will probably depend on one’s familiarity with the director’s previous films, with the Christian theology he employs, and how easy you find immersing yourself in a purely intuitive piece of art.
There are those who are awed by this – “Malick doesn’t make films anymore. He builds cathedrals.” and those who say that despite his undoubted influence on a raft of contemporary filmmakers, the director has become his own biggest imitator. Certainly there seems to be little evolution in his style from Tree of Life, of which this film is almost a companion piece. Both films relatively sparse plots could lead one to conclude that both were more about style than substance.
This would be unfair, both films are saying something serious, whether we care for (or can hear) the message or not. Extremely roughly, le Merveille and the romance that takes place there is Eden and the relationship coming apart is a fall from this blissful, blessed state. The film is jam-packed with familiar Malickian motifs (an adjective not to be confused with Ara Malickian, the violinist): doors and windows, babies, roads, water (sloshing about), beds, hands (often touching the sky), the sun shining through trees, kneeling etc. But then much is less familiar, but no doubt significant. Neil works as an environmental inspector, a job that takes him to infernal, or at least polluted, regions.
If we’re looking to decipher these, possibly it is best to consult Tarkovsky, one of the high priests of spiritual films. The Russian master of enigma and wonder, explained that he preferred metaphors to symbols. The latter had a definite meaning (and were thus finite, what Malick might refer to as belonging to the way of nature, rather than that of grace), whereas the metaphor “falls apart at any attempt of touching it.” Possibly Malick has some symbolic intent, but his motifs probably work better if we understand them as metaphors that cannot fully be explained, each an image that “only transmits truth and one can only comprehend it in one’s own heart” to quote Tarkovsky again.
To the Wonder may be set in a world stuck at dusk, but it is a marvellously still film. Olga Kurylenko may prance a bit too much, but it is undeniably lovely looking. It may also be somewhat confusing, but surely the best art does not reveal itself instantly. Let the beauty wash over you, grapple with the fall from grace, you will not get it in one go.
To the Wonder is out on Blue Ray and DVD on Monday 17 June, 2013. Special features include a Making of documentary and an interview with Olga Kurylenko.
See the trailer here: