‘To The Wonder’ is the latest film from highly acclaimed director Terrence Malick, and of all his work to date it is closest to his last piece, ‘The Tree of Life’, in that it is for the most part a series of beautiful shots of nature and people, as part of the natural world, and the narrative, such that it is, is told via the character’s thoughts in poetic voice over. The pivotal character is played by Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams play two of the women in his life, and Javier Bardem acts in support as the local priest with issues regarding his waning faith.
The story really focuses on the fidelity of Affleck’s relationship with girlfriend Kurylenko, and there is a sense of each character here suffering from sensory deprivation – the diligent priest who never stops working but gets no physical satisfaction, the wandering eye of Affleck, his bouncy joie de vivre girlfriend stuck with him in a dead end town, the oppressive weight of society’s expectations and limits contrasted with the wonderful landscape images of rolling hills and running streams. It is a reflective piece, and so interpretation is of course open, but there is an interesting sermon from the priest which mentions how a person can make a mistake and regret it, but hesitating and not acting is much worse. In a sense it’s a redemption for the darker moments of the film but I can’t help but wonder if perhaps Malick has not been thinking along the same lines himself, as the famously selective director, whose films to date are ‘Badlands’ (73), ‘Days of Heaven’ (78), ‘The Thin Red Line’ (98), ‘The New World’ (05) and ‘The Tree of Life’ (11), has suddenly gone into colossal creative overdrive with three full feature films currently in post production, one of which, ‘Voyage of Time’, is all about cosmology, and with his expertise in photography that really should be something special.
This is not going to be for everyone (about one third of the audience left before the end, and there were audible cries of delight when it did finish) and you have to be prepared for the majority of the film focusing on natural visuals – there is almost no character to character dialogue. It is in danger of being labelled pretentious, certainly it’s debatable whether or not he crosses the line here, where probably some of the earlier parts come off worse as we are introduced to the young lovers and it feels like we’re watching a twenty minute condom commercial. However, I think Malick is a director who takes his work very seriously and very personally (‘The Tree of Life’ for example is about a young family that very much mirrors his own upbringing) and over his films you can see his style evolving, and perhaps his confidence growing to the point where now he feels he can do a poetic film and not feel constrained by mainstream notions of story and dialogue. Feeding into this he has a very curious casting taste, usually casting the most beautiful people of both sexes that he can, indeed going for looks over acting quality – Brad Pitt, Colin Farrell, Ben Affleck, all known as male heart throbs but at times perhaps a little hit or miss on the acting front. Has he chosen them to try and match the perfection of his photography? Or for the bigger box office draw for what will be termed an art house film? There is almost a sense that the director is intensely shy and wants to be as far away from us as possible, and this film does suffer from a slight feeling of alienation that never quite goes away.
In the case of Affleck here, Malick very wisely gives him almost nothing to say for the entire film, he just sort of struts around looking brutish, and is rewarded for good behaviour by being allowed to break a wing mirror. He does have I think two, possibly three voice over bits of brief poetry, but then it really does sound hopelessly pretentious, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were a lot more left lying on the cutting room floor. His lady friend speaks in French a lot of the time, and it’s fairly plain to see from the look on Affleck’s face he has no idea what she is saying. The one time he replies in French we know very well it has been dubbed with someone else’s voice, partly from him having his back to us and omitting a small shout a second later with a different audio quality, and partly because there is no way he would be able to produce such a convincing French accent. Interestingly, one of the love scenes in the film, often the most difficult thing to do and usually completely pointless in terms of the story or visual experience for the audience, was superbly done, brief, but showcasing the bodies of the protagonists in a way they will never have any reason to be shy about.
Having said that, the camera does seem to have a constant gravitation toward the breasts of the various females who feature in the film, which begins to feel a little perverse, unless of course Malick is saying they are a part of the wonderful, beautiful landscape of nature which, you know, I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with, or perhaps he intends the viewer to almost see through the eyes of Ben Affleck’s character. Art house film can justify almost anything. There is a trend generally in modern film with the fairly ubiquitous use of shaky or hand held cam, to various degrees, to have a sneaky extra dip with the camera – even yesterday whilst rewatching Les Mis there was a noticeable perv on Samantha Barks when she’s in the rain singing against the wall.
The film’s title is mentioned as the main couple visit Mont Saint-Michel in France (also reputedly one of the inspirations behind Minis Tirith’s design in Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy). I thought at one point there was something about the film that reminded me of ‘There Will be Blood’, which has a similar feel in terms of the landscape acting as a character for the first act of the movie, and sure enough the head of the art department on that film, Jack Fisk (also husband to Sissy Spacek), reprises that role here, being a long time colleague of Malick. With ‘Blood’ the technique worked really well because it was used in collaboration with the actions, if not initially the words, of an intense character played by Daniel Day Lewis, but here the characters are too flimsy and don’t really get interesting until later on, which is ultimately why this isn’t as good as his previous work. There does remain some very beautiful imagery throughout the film that it will be a pleasure to have endure in my memory, and overall I’d say I liked it despite its overly indulgent tendencies, though it would be interesting to know where exactly the division here exists between Malick, Fisk and the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Not for the first time in his career, Malick has axed footage of other famous actors from the movie entirely, amongst them Jessica Chastain and Rachel Weisz. Perhaps Affleck’s character was getting too much action. Christian Bale was originally slated for the role that Affleck plays but he pulled out and will feature in Malick’s next two films instead.
One can imagine the casting…
MALICK : Ok, Olga, love your limited work so far by the way, so we’d like to cast you so we can have you frolic around sensually showing off your body, and then have you lie down on some manky wet marshland, how does that sound, exciting yes?
OLGA : Em, why?
MALICK : There is no why …. Only beauty…
B.AFFLECK : Hey Malick can I be your movie and then have it released around the time of the Oscars so I can say I was in an art house Terence Malick flick, and am therefore a SERIOUS GUY, and my torrid history bashopic ‘Argo’ can have better odds of winning best film?
MALICK : Yes. But you may not open your mouth again for the entirety of the film. Unless it is in wonder at the beauty….
B.AFFLECK : Well can I least take my shirt off?
MALICK : Let me have a look. Beautiful, yes we can work together.