Sleep, float, preach

It’s time Ter­rence Mal­ick got free of the dream­time, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - REVIEWS -

In Steven Bach’s es­sen­tial Fi­nal

Cut, a study of the calami­tous pro­duc­tion and re­lease of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, the au­thor notes how, when trash­ing the fin­ished film, cow­ardly crit­ics sud­denly be­gan re­vis­ing their hith­erto pos­i­tive opin­ion of the same di­rec­tor’s The Deer Hunter.

We are a ter­ri­bly fickle bunch. View­ing Ter­rence Mal­ick’s in­fu­ri­at­ingly bland To the Won­der, one does, how­ever, find it hard to re­sist pick­ing away at nag­ging wor­ries about the cel­e­brated di­rec­tor’s The

Tree of Life. That was cer­tainly a very beau­ti­ful pic­ture. But sus­pi­cions lin­gered that, if you scraped away the sur­face gloss, you’d be left with lit­tle but a few tat­tered, sopho­moric mus­ings. What’s it all about? If there’s a God, why do bad things hap­pen to nice peo­ple? That sort of guff.

At times, the new film plays like a Wayans brothers par­ody of a late Mal­ick pic­ture: Sleepy Movie, Floaty Movie, Preachy Movie. It’s not an al­to­gether un­pleas­ant ex­pe­ri­ence.

You know how th­ese things go. Shot of bil­low­ing corn. Whis­pered mut­ter­ings about eternity. Blast of late-ro­man­tic clas­si­cal mu­sic. Shot of drift­ing clouds. Whis­pered mut­ter­ings about di­vine grace. And so on. New-age re­lax­ation tapes have more hard edges.

If th­ese ef­forts at pas­tiche seem glib, they are noth­ing to Mal­ick’s own ac­ci­den­tal ex­er­cises in self­par­ody. “What is the love that loves us?” some­body mut­ters in that dead­ened, drugged mono­tone. So many ques­tions. Who wrote the Book of Love? Who put the “ram” in the ra­malama ding­dong?

The story seems to con­cern the puz­zling ro­mance be­tween a near­si­lent Amer­i­can (Ben Af­fleck) and an unimag­in­ably ir­ri­tat­ing French­woman (Olga Kurylenko). To clar­ify that their re­la­tion­ship be­gins in Paris, Mal­ick help­fully in­cludes co­pi­ous shots of the Eif­fel Tower (bi­cy­clists in stripy tops with onions round their necks are, thank­fully, kept off screen).

Later, they move to a gor­geous – noth­ing is al­lowed to be any­thing else in a Mal­ick film – sec­tion of the Amer­i­can in­te­rior where, to em­pha­sise her free-spir­ited aban­don, Kurylenko dances in su­per­mar­kets, ca­vorts in the sun and scowls an­grily like a child who’s just dropped her choc ice. Amaz­ingly, it takes close to 90 min­utes for Ben to aban­don her by the side of the road.

One can scarcely breathe for the dan­gling nar­ra­tive strands. Af­fleck, some sort of en­gi­neer, con­cerns him­self with an in­dus­trial plant that ap­pears to be poi­son­ing the com­mu­nity. Javier Bar­dem turns up as a priest who min­sters to the lo­cal drug ad­dicts. Rachel McA­dams spends an af­ter­noon play­ing a ri­val to the pirou­et­ting French lady.

When some­body un­ex­pect­edly opens a lap­top, one is re­minded that, to this point, the film seems to have been tak­ing place in an ide­alised ver­sion of 1956. Ev­ery­thing is crushed by de­mands of the suf­fo­cat­ingly hand­some Mal­ick aes­thetic.

Watch­ing The Tree of Life, you could, at least, talk your­self into be­liev­ing that some elu­sive mean­ing lurked just be­yond your in­tel­lec­tual reach. In To the

Won­der, Mal­ick even­tu­ally el­bows aside such am­bi­gu­ity by per­suad­ing Bar­dem to de­liver a lengthy ser­mon (no other word will do) that firmly iden­ti­fies the piece as an un­com­pli­cated slab of Chris­tian apolo­get­ics.

None of which is to sug­gest that the time has come to give up on this sin­gu­lar di­rec­tor. The di­rec­to­rial voice is so dis­tinc­tive and the im­agery so beau­ti­ful that

To the Won­der still de­mands to be seen. No­body else would have thought to fo­cus so acutely on how sand, elas­ti­cised by re­treat­ing water, re­fuses to break be­neath the feet of twirling lovers. The use of mu­sic re­mains as im­pres­sive as any­thing we have heard since Stan­ley Kubrick’s high years.

But the film does ul­ti­mately re­mind one of the prolix prose that ap­pears in cat­a­logues for con­tem­po­rary art shows. Some­times, it means noth­ing. Else­where, it means some­thing stag­ger­ingly ba­nal. Time to shake your­self free from the dream­time, Terry.

Will Won­der never cease: Olga and Ben will al­ways have Paris

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.