' Cinema Romantico: To the Wonder

Sunday, April 21, 2013

To the Wonder

“Where are we when we’re there? Why not always?” 

There is a remarkable shot in the early going of legendary recluse and suddenly (by his standards) prolific auteur Terrence Malick’s latest film "To the Wonder" when Marina (Olga Kurylenko) appears to walk on water. She is not walking on water, of course, and the film does not try to trick us into thinking she is walking on water, instead making it quite clear she is tiptoeing along stones on the edge of the sea. But then the sea gently laps in, momentarily erasing the stones from view, and there is Marina…..gliding. It is not Christ-like, it is something else. It is saying: to experience love, true, uninhibited, overwhelming love, even if it is fleeting, is to feel, but for an instant, as if you are walking on water.


The breathless first fifteen minutes of "To the Wonder" mix swooping images of astonishing beauty in both nature and physical human contact with whispered voiceovers that tell us everything and nothing. The cleansing rush we feel is the cleansing rush they feel – that is, Marina and Neil (Ben Affleck), an American on vacation in France, who meets the beguiling Ukrainian divorcee, living in Paris, which results in a whirlwind if spellbinding courtship. Generally all we receive here are impressions of what is happening but their affection for one another is unmistakable. We do not need to be told what is happening because Malick lets us feel it. This is cinema of almost inexpressible grace and power, it is a sacrament To the Wonder of love.

Neil invites Marina and her ten year old daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) to return with him to the United States, to his home in Oklahoma, and they accept. The contrasts on display from Europe to America are stark but, of course, Malick being Malick, still ring with the same rarefied beauty. Whether it is the Seine or a Sonic Drive In, he renders each image as if it belongs on a canvas.  Life, as it must, grows more complicated. Marina and Tatiana in their dress and mannerisms, their constant pirouetting in the tall Oklahoma weeds or in the fluorescent aisles of colossal supermarket stores, often seem far from their own shore, unhappy pilgrims yearning to re-cross the Atlantic. Neil, we sense, is less than an ideal mate beyond a romantic getaway. Notice how Malick continually frames Affleck with his back to the camera, as if long ago he turned his back on the world, as if he harbors personal demons for which he has yet to offer penance.

This might be enough to sustain a film for a mere mortal but, again, Malick being Malick, he adds an alluring friend from Neil’s youth, Jane (Rachel McAdams), who comes and goes almost like a windswept apparition (even now I wonder, did I dream that Rachel McAdams was in this film?) as well as a Catholic priest, Father Quintana, played by Javier Bardem in what is no doubt the Sean Penn Memorial "Tree Of Life" Award (given to the character in a Malick movie whose part was clearly pared down in editing). He could have wandered across the Atlantic with Neil and Marina from an Ingmar Bergman movie, suffering from and internally raging against a perceived absence of God. Jane factors into the main story prominently in her own less-than-prominent way but Father Quintana merely tangentially interacts with our primary characters, seeming to exist in a narration entire separate from the one in which we have become invested. It is odd, no doubt, but then Malick has always crafted his films with his heart as opposed to his head and while at its most elementary level it might seem unnecessary consider that Father Quintana, mirroring Neil and Marina’s splintering relationship, has lost all sense of wonder, that intangible mysticism beyond our earthly grasp. 


This is the question Malick abstractly poses again and again as the movie progresses: “Where are we when we’re there? Why not always?” Perhaps this is simplistic, but then I have always admired Malick’s ability and, more crucially, want to not shy away from the most broad and, in turn, grand mysteries of life. And what makes "To the Wonder" such a vexing if celestial conundrum is that rather than building to the wonder itself he positions it upfront at the start, making the remainder of the film a spiritual slog, a confusing struggle to re-connect with a sensation that is hardly possible to understand. You might even check the time. This experience that only a short time ago was so transcendent has turned you into a tragic clockwatcher.

A patron next to me at theater remarked to his companion during the closing credits: “I was with it for that first act and then in the second and third acts it lost me.” Well, exactly! That’s life! You’re in tune with it and then, suddenly, you’re not. What happened? Where did it go? You grapple with it. You try to get it back. Can you get it back? How do you get it back?

I left the theater wrestling with these questions in my mind. I noticed the sky. It was filled with those sorts of stratocumulus clouds that cause the sun to play peek-a-boo. I could not stop looking. I kind of never wanted to stop looking.

No comments: