Monday, June 3, 2013
The wonder of the title refers to the Merveille of Mont Saint-Michel, the abbey off the coast of Normandy where American Neil (Ben Affleck) and Frenchwoman Marina (Olga Kurylenko) travel after meeting on the former’s European trip. They reach this location not five minutes into the movie, fulfilling the epic ambition of the title through a punny loophole. Where Tree of Life culminated on a beach that elevated reality into the sublime, To the Wonder begins on one, forcing the characters to spend the rest of the film returning to the world. The results make for perhaps Malick’s most harrowing picture, despite laying claim to a corpus in which four of six films contain murder, if not outright war. Violence, pestilence, devastation have always had a place in Malick’s world; Tree of Life even indirectly traced the explosions of The Thin Red Line to a natural history of chaotic destruction and renovation via its intense creation sequence. But To the Wonder rips apart the personal bonds that gives the director’s work its intimacy, pushing farther than the familial strife that tore open holes in his last film and removing (almost) entirely the notes of loving reconciliation and restabilization.
With the vast majority of the film’s dialogue restricted to firmly separated tracks of voiceover narration, To the Wonder’s movement (“story” is the wrong word here) and character dynamics unfold largely through the actors’ body language and in shot placement and editing. Early shots of Kurylenko upon moving back to the American Midwest with Neil are alive with her graceful, joyous movement and a look of discovery on her face as childlike as her young, transplanted daughter, Tatiana. Gradually however, the wider, more carefree shots move from a wider appraisal of her grace to something more claustrophobic. Neil, buried under Affleck’s hardened face, starts to appear cut off in the frame as the camera stays close to the look of doubt and loneliness that creeps into her face. The lover begins to look like a stern father from a child’s point-of-view, and when Marina informs Neil that her visa has expired, the forced temporary break almost comes as a relief, sparing Marina from drowning in her alienation.
Even so, To the Wonder often feels like a horror film, the domestic normalcy of The Tree of Life’s ‘50s setting replaced by a ramshackle approximation of it that provides no foundation to provide comfort or discomfort. When Marina and Tatiana move into Neil’s American home, its skeletal furnishings reflect not only the new family’s beginnings but also Neil’s inner conflict about pursuing a traditional life path—job, family, house, the like—and some unspoken, half-understood reluctance to commit to any of those things. Their spare house sits in an unfinished subdivision surrounded by the wide, flat expanse of a half-developed Midwestern town, exacerbating the bareness of the characters’ surroundings.
Other homes offer no comfort either. In Marina’s absence, Marina reconnects with an old flame, Jane (Rachel McAdams), who represents a stabler path to domestic comfort but also cannot spark commitment in Neil. Jane’s frustration with him is set to shots of her ranch house and the scattered toys and trinkets of a deceased child, the warmth of a rustic home turned cold and bleak as Malick and Lubezki wander through the house with naught but a handheld lamp for light. The local priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), tours areas blighted by economic ruin, walking among houses coated with dirt besides sidewalks covered in leaves and flanked by overgrown grass.
Quintana suffers from a spiritual crisis that, as with the romantic conflicts between Neil and the two women, illustrates a split from the literal motions the characters enact to fulfill themselves and the inherent meaningless of those gestures. Neil’s vague sketch of a middle-class home divorces the signifier of consumerist comfort from the good life it is meant to signify. Likewise, Quintana looks for Jesus by retracing His steps, hanging with the poor, the infirm and the vulgar in the hopes of finding Him. Kurylenko, like Chastain before her, offers some semblance of freedom outside such confining social normalcy, but even more than Chastain’s mother in Tree of Life, Kurylenko’s free soul is only bound by the traditional forms of society, and her dances in fields become futile gestures at finding a form of liberation that eludes her.
As with The Tree of Life, To the Wonder displays an overt religious streak, but those who balk at the presence of too much Christianity in a film (that is to say, any at all) may miss how untraditional the search for God is in Malick’s most recent features. The Tree of Life’s creation sequence, after all, offers a condensed depiction of evolution, and its final, transcendent moment on the beach calls to mind Carl Sagan’s quote about all of us being made of star stuff as much as any religious notion of an afterlife. To the Wonder puts away Malick’s transcendentalism entirely, providing no sense of release and purity in that which previously communicated a magical sense of expression. It is interesting to note that in Malick’s new handheld, ambulatory style, nearly all of the static shots in this film take place within Quintana’s church, the one place where life does not seem to tread; likewise, quotes from the Bible hang in dead air, filled with the stale rot of something so old and unchangeable.
Quintana’s quest and the other characters’ romantic strife suggests a link between God and love, but not in the traditional Christian sense of not knowing love for others without love for God. To the Wonder wrenching wind-down, including an act of forgiveness that resonates despite the twist outcome of this seeming stabilization, returns to agape in its original meaning of love beyond erotic love, something deeper and truer. Many have dismissed To the Wonder as self-parody, but if anything Malick approaches his style from a new angle, not simply ascribing meaning to images through tone poetry collage but isolating each gesture and look to reveal their inherent shortcomings. The Wonder is easily reached at the start of the film, but in the end it appears in the distance, and the ineffable but grounded sensuality of Malick's form throughout the film only further serves to show that the romance embodied by the Wonder must be agonizingly worked toward. Malick's most abstract feature thus becomes his most practical, to boot.