Country - USA, France
Starring - Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Amy McAdams and Javier Bardem
Running Time - 112 minutes
Synopsis - After visiting Mont Saint-Michel, Marina and Neil come to Oklahoma, where problems arise. Marina meets a priest and fellow exile, who is struggling with his vocation, while Neil renews his ties with a childhood friend, Jane.
Filmmaker turned philosopher Terrence Malick has never had what one would define as a consistent production output. Between his debut Badlands in 1973 and 2005s The New World he released just four films (with a twenty year gap in there as well.) Yet, against his character, just over a year after the critically acclaimed Palme D'or winner The Tree of Life was released, his newest film To The Wonder arrives in cinemas this week.
Since Days of Heaven (1978) Malick's films have increasingly been geared away from conventional narrative and towards existential musings on faith, love and nature. This style built towards the grandiose The Tree of Life which charted the beginning of time itself to the end of existence through the point of view of a child growing up in 1950s Texas. Though majestically constructed and cinematically important, it wasn't a perfect film, the height of which was a horrifically misguided sequence involving dinosaurs that would be dropped from a Land Before Time sequel. Though it was the ambition of his sentiments that firmly secured it as a fascinatingly flawed masterpiece. For me, it was the summation of these elements that should have marked the end (or at least a break) of this movement in his career.
Instead, To The Wonder sees Malick push further into poetic montage, presenting us with a story of crisis, one of love and one of faith... that is to say love and faith, as Malick conditions it.
The film opens with what would go down in history as the most artistically shot phone camera footage as lovers Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) travel across France. Malick is known for his beautiful 35mm canvas-like compositions, so this opening is a way of playing with his established style just as to invite the audience into making personal associations with the grainy intimacy of iPhone visuals. Still, I found it hard to take seriously as an expression of smitten playfulness when Affleck is busy lining up his shots to the rule of thirds. Their voyage through France is presented with as much restraint as an over-excited Nikon advert. The graceful rolls and tilts of the camera as he moves into and passed the lovers become an extension of passions that the audience cannot share in, they feel removed and even naive. He constantly looks to the sky for answers, but is more frequently met with the loneliness of a plane cutting through the sky, as a motif it feels unwarranted and coincidental, brought in through in the editing suite as a vague way of capturing interest.
Europe ends and when Neil invites Marina and her ten year old daughter to come live with them on a housing development in Oklahoma. They spend their time frolicking gleefully through fields, curtains and supermarkets, when their relationship comes under strain the two strut round the house in silence, as if on isolated planes of existence. All the while Kurylenko's ethereal voice over rambles aimlessly about the nature of their love and her own discontent. To put it bluntly, this constitutes so much of the film that it crosses into unintended self parody. Increasingly Malick's characters have become less a defined person in their own right and more a channel for his own existential concerns, here they lack any form of identity at all. There is so little progression, development or narrative exposition that any profound point on the nature of relationships and love Malick is trying to capture is totally lost as the character's become figures, shifting weightlessly between passions, continents and partners.
Just as The Tree of Life was led by a reflective, autobiographical tone, To The Wonder feels like a personal confession manifesting itself as a convoluted experiment, Malick splits himself between two male figures; Affleck's Neil and Bardem's Father Quintana. The former is a man struggling with committing to, and defining himself within, his relationships. He offers Marina warmth, affection and support but cannot give himself completely to her, and when her Visa expires he refuses to marry her resulting in her deportation. His attentions then turn to childhood friend Jane (Rachel McAdams) in a brief middle section that fails to offer any supporting weight to the narrative. Quintana is a community priest who's relationship with God has been strained due to the economic and social disintegration of his neighbourhood. In an interesting move Malick moves to a Neo-Realist style as Bardem moves from house to house interacting with local residents. Although the more engaging of the two, Malick fails to unite the narratives other than a few shots of Marina and Quintana together. As a result the methodical lines plucked from his sermons lack any significance with Neil and Marina's story and his resolution unmoving. Even worse, as Malick begins to indulge in scenes with drug addicts and the disabled the film moves past earnestness and into crass exploitation.
Undoubtedly Olga Kurylenko is the central character of the piece, with Malick himself regarding it as 'her film.' His camera leans into her sensuality, capturing the curve of her neck and the elegance in her movements to the extent it borders on voyeurism. This is made all the apparent by his total disregard for Amy McAdams who is presented more flatly and distanced. In a strange scene, Malick drowns out her back story with Marina's voice over, illustrating his lack of interest in Jane's character. Yet despite this focus, she is still is nothing more than an ideal, a representation of love that Malick can only grasp at, but not retain.
In my research on the film I was enlightened to know that those invited to the Press Screenings of To The Wonder were given notes on the characters, time frames and pollution subplots which is all but brushed aside in favor of the overly enigmatic mess we are left with. Given the films problematic production with actors dropping out, characters being removed completely and shooting beginning without a finished script, it becomes clear that this is a shell of Malick's intended vision. To an extent it excuses the lack of substantial structure to the narrative, but none the less, To the Wonder is still an indulgent and overblown exercise in tedium. The whispered spiritualist romanticism's of his script fail to amount to any tangible thoughts on the fervent desires and illusions of love nor faith and therefore feels obnoxiously preachy.