To The Wonder director Terrence Malick has never been one to be rushed. After 1978’s release of Days Of Heaven he waited twenty years before his next project with 1998’s The Thin Red Line. But now, after the release of 2011’s The Tree of Life, we’re going to be getting FIVE Malick films in the space of four years. To The Wonder will be followed by an as yet untitled project preceding Knight Of Cups and Voyage of Time. As he approaches his 70th birthday it seems Malick’s existential, often transcendental, musings on the world and man have acquired a new found hunger in one of film’s most artistic and inspirational directors.
To The Wonder sees Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) hopelessly in love while visiting various tourist hotspots in France, including Paris and the cloudy, yet still picturesque, Mont Saint-Michel. Taking Marina, and her sprite-like daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) back to Oklahoma with him, the couple soon encounter problems. Neil struggles to establish a relationship with Tatiana despite her best wishes, while Marina cannot adapt to American life, feeling that something is missing. When they return to France, Neil reconnects with a childhood friend, Jane (Rachel McAdams). All the while Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) struggles with his relationship with God.
To the Malick uninitiated, or those who have not enjoyed his previous work, To The Wonder will do little to convert. As with The Tree Of Life, it is more a poem than a traditional film. The plot is pure circumstance to Malick’s vision and spiritual execution. Indeed on the Making Of Documentary, accompanying the home entertainment release, Ben Affleck says that to work with Malick is to embrace chaos. While Kurylenko points out that there was never a script to speak of.
Malick isn’t interested in traditional story telling. What dialogue there is in To The Wonder is often spoken in Malick’s now trademark whispered voice-overs. It’s seductive, like having a beautiful woman, of which Kurylenko and McAdams more than fit the bill through Malick’s eyes, offer their thoughts on love, life and the universe while they gently watch you drift off to sleep.
The story is circumstance, what Malick is interested in is conjuring an emotion, something that speaks to us without the use of words. With the help of now regular cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Malick paints his film with dazzling visuals. Whether it’s characters walking through a field or dancing in a bedroom, the sun kissing the curtains, dust particles and soft skin of the characters, it is hard not to be hypnotised by the beauty on offer. In fact so breathtaking are some of the montages Malick creates you wonder why they are not put on display in an art exhibition. If reality always looked as it does through Malick’s camera the world would certainly offer a more vibrant existence.
Yet for all its splendor it’s hard to know what the point of it all is. Neil is an environmental inspector, forever knee deep in mud and asking locals what their health is like. His affections for Marina are deep but often frustrated while with Jane he’s more subdued, her aching melancholy seemingly infecting his own. The Tree Of Life had a clear ideal running through it where To The Wonder often feels haphazard.
But Malick is a poet, his work open to individual interpretation. There are clear messages of man and environment here, ideas of love being both beautiful yet painful. Take what you will from To The Wonder, it’s often hard to be anything other than mesmerised by the sheer euphoria Malick is able to instill in the viewer through his use of imagery, sound and music. Often, when the three combine it is sweeping and all encompassing.
Certainly not Malick’s best work but still more interesting and sumptuous than most modern filmmakers. To The Wonder will dazzle with its ability to immerse you in an emotion but will leave you wondering what the beautiful point of it all was.