Starring: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem
You may like this if you liked: The Tree of Life (Terence Malick, 2011), Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance, 2010), Two Lovers (James Gray, 2008)
While travelling, American Neil (Affleck) meets a Ukrainian living in Paris called Marina (Kurylenko). They share an extremely passionate romance when visiting Mont. St. Michel. When back in Paris, Neil asks Marina if her and her daughter Tatiana want to live with him in his home state of Oklahoma, she happily accepts. They settle into their new life in America, at first their relationship is as passionate as ever but they grow increasingly distant. When her visa expires, Marina is forced to return to France with Tatiana. As Neil and Marina struggle with a long distance relationship, by chance Neil comes back into contact with a high school sweetheart Jane (Rachel McAdams) and with rekindling old feelings, they begin a passionate relationship. Back in Paris, Marina falls on tough times including Tatiana moving to live with her father and on hearing this Neil breaks Jane’s heart and Marina moves back to America. Once again all the positive and negative passions alight. All the while the local priest Father Quintana (Bardem) constantly has a crisis of faith and struggles to find answers to his countless questions on what faith actually is.
The term ‘maverick director’ is banded about way too much, but it may well be fitting when it comes to Terence Malick. Just like Lars Von Trier, Quentin Tarantino (!), Michael Haneke to name a few examples, he only does films his way. This is of course to be admired as long as there is some reason or actual genuine meaning or message behind these films. Though I admired its ambition, I was personally disappointed by The Tree of Life as for me there were so many aspects of it that did not work. So I was a little apprehensive about To the Wonder, especially as it is only two years later, as opposed to the usual ten.
As this is Malick once again, To the Wonder does not contain a conventional narrative or the usual techniques associated such as character arcs, character development or narrative closure. I will warn anyone reading this that has never seen any Terence Malick films that To the Wonder is perhaps not the best place to start. The Thin Red Line or Badlands are possibly better introductions to Malick as they are in my view much more accessible viewing experiences (and superior films). Anyone who has seen The New World or Tree of Life can basically expect more of the same; Painstaking attention to detail, fast editing, swooping camera work, every shot pretty much a moving portrait, jump cuts, whispered voiceovers and of course corn fields. This is a film that is beautifully shot, but this being Malick that is basically now a given. To the Wonder’s dialogue is pretty much all narrated by Kurylenko, McAdams and Bardem. Though Affleck is in a vast majority of scenes, he actually says very little.
One problem when a film is structured in this way is that it is extremely easy to over analyse and look for things that simply are not there. It is easy to look for specific meanings that are linked by certain images; though there may well be obvious metaphors sometimes you can just drive yourself insane trying to figure it all out. This can often lead to the whole ‘I don’t get it all therefore it must be brilliant’ tag, which is not necessarily the case, for example Revolver (Guy Ritchie, 2005) made no sense but was simply terrible. For me To the Wonder is more a collection of moods, interpretations and ideas based around the universal themes of love and belonging. In my view, to try and analyse every single shot just ruins the whole experience. I accept this is a style of film making that will frustrate and alienate many, but I personally enjoyed it and found it had an extremely emotional effect on me.
I found the story extremely simple; it is basically what I described earlier, the story of a couple having ups and downs with one showing more devotion than the other. This is of course usually presented in more conventional ways, but Malick appears to want to do something different and make the whole experience more personal. We are given access to the inner thoughts of three different characters simply pursuing a basic human desire; to feel loved and feel belonging in return for the devotion and personal sacrifices they have made. The fact that it is the inner thoughts of three characters desperate for these feelings adds to the power, as Affleck’s character faces almost a different situation. He has offers of love and devotion, where as the other three offer it but are desperate to have it reciprocated.
I have read many complaints about the lack of character development and that it is impossible to care about the characters. Though I accept there is truth in this, it is not the characters in front of us that we should care about, but more apply their feelings to ourselves. This is why in my view there are no character arcs or narrative closure in To the Wonder, as life does not have such things. Life often presents more questions than answers, and To the Wonder demonstrates this. Like other Malick films, I feel that this is a film that will mean different things to different people. As I stated before, these are universal themes that we can all relate to and all have various experiences of. Your experience of this film may differ due to your own experiences and even what is going on during your life at the time. If a film can have an emotional effect on you in this way, then it must be doing something right. Though there may be no character arcs within the narrative, there may well be a character arc for us the viewer.
Bardem’s priest proves a perfect antidote to the thoughts of Kurylenko and McAdams. Quintana’s crisis of faith proves that religion, just like love with other human beings, can fulfil the human need for belonging, reciprocated love and affection. I am not a religions person myself, but what Quintana desires was easy to understand and empathise with. These are things we all desire from life at certain times, it just that in the case of Quintana that he choose religion to provide this. Where as it is the love of Neil that drives Kurylenko’s and McAdams desire for these kinds of feelings. This only adds to fact these emotions and desires can be applied to anyone and whatever they are personally passionate about. I personally find that some films may seem a little boring or pointless while watching and maybe are trying your patience. However, after watching and being able to analyse the film as a whole I almost get an epiphany moment and the emotional themes of the narrative hit me. To the Wonder to me was like that, at times it truly does test your patience and Malick’s unique narrative style may feel tedious and repetitive at times. However, I felt my patience was rewarded once I was able to think of the film as a whole. I know people will have a different view of the film than I do and what it meant, and that is partly as to why To the Wonder is such powerful and personal experience.
In my view To the Wonder is a perfect demonstration of one of the many different ways how film, as an art form, can depict themes and emotions, without presenting a simple spoon fed linear story. Art should present rich debate and discussion where there are enigmas and different interpretations, and Malick is a director that proves film can most definitely be like this. As I said before, many will find this film infuriating and alienating, but others will find it deeply personal and extremely involving as I did. This is definitely not Malick’s best, but still an unforgettable and involving experience. If you like a film that is an experience and it makes you apply what is happening on screen to your own personal experiences, then I would thoroughly recommend To the Wonder.