Is life just a series of events? Births, deaths, marriages, divorces, jobs, redundancies. Are these the barometers for life, the way in which we measure our existence on earth? Is this all it comes down to? Or are we forgetting something important? Experience. Feeling. Over the past few years I have been more and more drawn to films which celebrate the sensory experience of life rather than boil a story down to a series of happenings. Events can only tell you half the story; the emotions between the lines will linger longer in the memory than the basic details. Which brings me to Terrence Malick, to my mind the most evocative creator of moments working in cinema today.
His latest film, To the Wonder, is arguably his most adventurous proponent of this vision yet. While his earlier films, particularly Badlands, stuck to a fairly linear, conventional Hollywood structure, his films have gradually emerged in a looser, more improvisatory fashion, culminating in To the Wonder. Malick is notorious for changing things on set, rewriting dialogue as the inspiration comes to him and chopping and changing scenes and actors in the edit room. With To the Wonder, there was no solid script, just a set of sketches and notes to work with. The result is a free wheeling, unpredictable melodrama that no one else could have possibly made.
The story is deeply personal to Malick; Neil (Ben Affleck) embarks on a whirlwind romance with Marina (Olga Kurylenko) during a trip to Paris. The stoic Neil is drawn to Marina’s wildfire ways and seeks to bring her and her daughter back to live in his native Oklahoma. Once there the relationship begins to fizzle out, and Neil is drawn back to Jane (Rachel McAdams) his childhood flame. It is difficult to predict how far art imitates life in this case, but Malick spent sometime in Paris, eventually travelling back to settle in Texas. Malick’s previous film, The Tree of Life, was also highly personal, and it would not be outrageous to assume that the reclusive auteur is beginning to reveal a part of himself little seen to the public. With age he seems to be parting the curtains a little.
To the Wonder is unlike any film you will see this year, both in mainstream Hollywood or even the art house circles. It opens with camera phone shots of the newly born couple swirling around Paris in a daze, a blur of neon lights and stolen glances. Marina dances along trains, bridges, city streets, high on the energy of romance, while a rapt Neil follows in her wake. This is perhaps where Malick is at his best, demonstrating the vitality and good in life through sound and image. Regular DOP Emmanuel Lubezki has become an integral cog in Malick’s vision; his fluid, wandering camera capturing the two lovers in a dreamlike manner. Music also plays a huge part in conjuring feeling, and Hanan Townshend’s stirring strings elevate the images to a higher place.
Life details, issues, obstacles come in small snatches; how does Marina’s daughter feel about the move? What will Marina do when she gets there? Will they cope with the change? It is almost as if these are petty details in the whirlwind of love ensnaring the two characters. Once in Oklahoma, things start to change. Malick tells the story almost entirely through body language and landscape. Marina loses her lust for life, her wildness dimmed by the alien surroundings. Malick has often used his native Texan landscape to signal both rapture and despair. The empty suburban streets and golden wheat fields exuding a wistful poignancy; an opportunity for hope and a mournful foreboding.
One element that Malick has taken to new heights is the idea of movement. In The New World, and to some extent The Tree of Life, the main characters moved as if they were in a ballet, their ebbing emotions mirroring the direction of their feet. Another talented American director, Hal Hartley, also demonstrated this technique in his films, getting his actors to circle each other like a choreographed performance. It brings a physicality and poetry to proceedings that To the Wonder uses to great effect.
There is no doubt that To the Wonder is a beautiful work that utilises cinema to its real nature, its real calling. There are certain moments where all the sensory elements collide to heartbreaking effect, and your whole body tenses in answer. Yet, Malick’s sixth film has its flaws. Although the film is fascinating and keeps on asking questions of the audience, it feels slight compared to some of his other works. The lack of a solid story hinders To the Wonder in a way that it didn’t in his previous films. By the time Neil and Marina’s relationship begins to fizzle, the tension that drove The New World or Days of Heaven ceases to exist. To the Wonder might actually be too personal a project.
Kurylenko captures Marina’s unpredictable nature brilliantly while showing an emotional depth; Affleck however suffers greatly. Never the most expressive of actors, his chisel jawed silence seems jarring compared to the film’s emotive, almost melodramatic style. Malick often manages to extract special performances from lesser acclaimed actors, but here Affleck could be considered perhaps the weakest lead in the director’s oeuvre. It doesn’t help that Neil’s motivation seems unclear. He seems to float along, unwilling to commit to anything and even the work subplot involving the contamination of soil falls by the wayside. Javier Bardem, playing the local priest, lends gravitas to a small but important role. His lonely, doubtful existence about his career path echoing Marina’s own struggle.
Thematically To the Wonder seems to follow the same strains as Malick’s previous films; rationality, intellectualism and pragmatism vs. spontaneity, feeling and real desire. The head vs. the heart. Like Jessica Chastain’s mother character in The Tree of Life, Marina’s character appears to symbolise a part of nature, while Neil represents the masculine opposite. The film also seems to be preoccupied by the notion of love, the conflict between personal love and a greater love for mankind. Malick shows love as a temperamental, fleeting force in our personal lives, but hints towards a higher universal form that Bardem’s priest is so desperately trying to locate.