LEFT TO WON­DER

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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

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