With its loose strands of lonely souls looking for love, Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder reaches for the stars with his poetry of image.
Silent Light by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
You have to give Terrence Malick credit for trying something different. Beyond the cinematic ocean of digital realism and performance or script led pieces, To The Wonder refuses the combined skills of actors and screenwriters alike to conjure up an experience of image, word and music. Malick’s themes here aren’t so different from The Tree Of Life – nature, grace, love and suburban America. Just without the creation, dinosaurs, and dialogue. But there’s still a divine hue in To The Wonder, with Javier Bardem’s Spanish priest and former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko questioning the constancy of their love for the beloved.
To The Wonder opens with Neil’s phone camera footage of his Paris romance Marina. It’s daringly low-grade, but beautifully framed in its portrait of the pouty French mademoiselle. But in its attempt to capture the first throes of love, this digital imagery is a fascinating miniature of Malick’s film. With barely a word spoken, the amorous pair take in Paris, gad about onboard a TGV and explore the abandoned monastery of Mont St Michel. They climb the stairs to the wonder, which it turns out is a red rose in full bloom in a snow-frozen cloister – a symbol of love, both romantic and divine. But like the La Dame à la Licorne tapestries in the Musée de Cluny that the loving couple also visit – it’s a love that provides a culmination to the senses. And with Emmanuel Lubezki’s sumptuously sensual cinematography, To The Wonder is Malick’s own attempt in celluloid to conjure up the wonder of love.
There are beautiful, awe-inspiring and original moments, like the elastic quicksands on the French coast, or the rippled shore welcoming the incoming tide. And Malick’s film, especially when it crosses the Atlantic to Oklahoma, focuses on the miracles of nature – lowing bison, timorous horses and the quivering grasses of the great plains. To The Wonder is shot almost entirely against the sun, soaking up light, the beauty of nature and gently caressing its witnesses to creation. His camera constantly approaches, able to elevate the mundane opening of a door with an epic sweep. The sequences aren’t really enough to pin a narrative on, but with his dialogue-less snippets Malick reduces the everyday to its most beautiful – a very cinematic love of life.
Beyond image, only Marina and Father Quintana have interior monologues, Ben Affleck pushed to the sidelines, barely glimpsed and mute. But he’s caught between a new love – vivacious, French and moody, and an old sweetheart, played by Rachel McAdams, natural and earthy in her all-American plaid. And we see his sweethearts as he would see them – the immigrant and the cattle rancher. Just as To The Wonder seems to yearn for the sun-kissed prairies of the southern States over the metropolitan delights of old Europe, Neil is torn between the exciting spontaneity of Marina and the nostalgic, comforting charm of Jane. He is the man who can’t decide. In opposition to Marina and Father Quintana constantly searching for faithworthy fulfilment, he is the dolt who looks on passively while the women around him make the decisions.
With a flood of languages, (French, Russian Spanish, Italian) Malick underlines the universality of this search for fulfilment, whether the love of a man or of a god. It’s the unifying wind that blows through all of To The Wonder, Marina looking for Neil’s love, a priest searching for the love of God. But there are other layers too, with Malick searching for God through cinematic image just as Neil looks for Marina through the camera on his cell phone. And in the end, with his camera swooping and swirling around Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams, is Malick not searching for woman in just the same way?
If The Tree Of Life was a dramatisation of the Book of Genesis, To The Wonder is Exodus, with the faithful searching for an old god in a new land. It’s not perfect, and Marina’s seemingly directionless, incessant dancing jars as much as the occasional clichéd image, hands held up to block the sun. Malick’s monologues are often clumsy and sententious, but they’re not meaningless, seeking out a different path that leads direct to the soul. For To The Wonder isn’t beautiful, intellectual or emotional, it’s spiritual. And Malick, with his plastic fondness for the ornate, is aiming for the transcendental. To The Wonder may not have the spiritual power of Ozu, Bresson or Dreyer, but with its languorous assault of image, it’s haunting and quietly troubling.
To The Wonder is released on 22nd February 2013 in the UK