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