LEFT TO WONDER
TERRENCE Malick is one of America’s most provocative and reclusive filmmakers. Born in Texas in 1943, Malick came to world attention with his debut, Badlands (1973), a moody story of a couple of young killers that was as far removed from the glamour of films such as Bonnie & Clyde as it was possible to be.
Five years later, Malick’s second film, the sublime Days of Heaven, was set on a midwestern wheat farm at the turn of the 20th century, a place where confused relationships end in tragedy. Then there was a 20-year hiatus before Malick made his third film, The Thin Red Line (1998), about the war in the Pacific, which was shot in north Queensland. Seven years passed before The New World (2005), about the contacts between Europeans and Native Americans at the beginning of colonisation of the country, and another five years passed before the award-winning nonnarrative The Tree of Life, a film of great beauty that baffled as many as it entranced.
Given the long gaps between projects, it was rather surprising when Malick — who avoids giving interviews or even making personal appearances — completed To the Wonder only 11/ years later. But when the film premiered at the Venice film festival last year it was greeted with bewilderment. Malick seems to have abandoned the narrative form entirely and, in this film, tells a story of a love affair in which the dialogue, what there is of it, is barely heard and the characters, rather than placed centre screen, more often than not appear on the periphery of the image. The film reinforces the director’s interest in spirituality, something vaguely present in his early work and much more prominent in The Tree of Life. It’s also the first time he has made a film set entirely in the present.
The characters in this story of the ups and downs of a relationship aren’t, as far as I could hear, named in the film — but they are in the cast list at the end. Neil (Ben Affleck) is an American in Paris where he meets Marina (Olga Kurylenko). We see them first on a train, then visiting Mont St Michel, where ravishing images of sea and sand confirm Malick’s skill as a visual artist, and then to a monastery by the sea. These sublime images are accompanied by banal voiceover comments (‘‘You brought me out of the shadows’’; ‘‘ We climbed the steps to the wonder’’), while music by Wagner and Haydn fills the soundtrack. Soon we meet Marina’s daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) and the three spend time in a Paris park. Then, in an abrupt cut from a shot of the incoming tide, we’re in Oklahoma, in Neil’s home town, and the three are living in his sparsely furnished house while he resumes his work as an environmental inspector. Tatiana is enrolled in the local school, which she hates.
More time goes by and Marina and Tatiana return to France; Neil takes up with an old friend, Jane (Rachel McAdams); Marina returns without Tatiana and moves back in the house; and so it goes on. I’ve left out another key character, Neil’s priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who is facing a crisis over his diminishing faith.
All Malick’s films, including this one, deal, in one form or another, with an ideal, the idea of a kind of perfection that the characters strive for but that in the end proves elusive — paradise lost, if you like. But the lack of a narrative, the at times intensely annoying framing and editing devices, distance the viewer from the characters. In essence, the charting of a love affair from its delirious beginnings to its bitter conclusion is hardly new, but the religious connotations embedded in To the Wonder attempt, with very mixed success, to add something more.
At times the film feels like a bad parody of