Movie of the week: To the Wonder

Middle-American melancholy: Ben Affleck gives a performance of sensitivity and dignity in Terrence Malick’s newest offering, To the Wonder. (Mary Cybulski)

Middle-American melancholy: Ben Affleck gives a performance of sensitivity and dignity in Terrence Malick’s newest offering, To the Wonder. (Mary Cybulski)

It used to be that Terrence Malick moved at merely geological speed from one project to the next. But just two years after his last film, his colossal, and colossally divisive, The Tree of Life, ­Malick has given us To the Wonder.

It’s a fascinating, flawed and vivid piece of work, in some ways a coda or companion piece to The Tree of Life. There is the same rapture, the same beautiful cinema­tography from Emmanuel Lubezki — at once driftingly impressionistic and ­pin-sharp — the same unapologetic concern with spiritual crisis and the same unfashionable Christian theme.

Since its premiere at last year’s Venice film festival, To the Wonder has been giggled at a bit by ­pundits who are otherwise content to wave through every sort of passionless cinema that risks and achieves ­nothing.
It does revisit some familiar images: the sunset glow, the intricate stained glass, the middle-American main street and front porch, and reportage-type quotation of scraps of dialogue from neighbours and onlookers whose faces loom into the camera.

It occasionally comes close to self-parody and, in its final act, there is some visual and rhetorical redundancy. But these are the visible faults of a strong and powerfully distinctive filmmaker.

The entirety of To the Wonder is a kind of unframed flashback, accompanied by Malick’s characteristic murmured voice-over and surging orchestral score, not a narrative so much as remembered feelings, glimpses and moments in narrative order and dreamily extended to epiphany length.

It is a kind of silent cinema, and the movie’s male lead — a performance of dignity and sensitivity from Ben Affleck — is virtually mute.

Affleck plays Neil, a stolidly handsome American engineer who has fallen passionately in love while in France with Marina, played by Olga Kurylenko, a beautiful free spirit. Their affair plays out in the gorgeous parks and avenues of Paris and achieves a transcendental quality when they visit Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, and are overwhelmed by its beauty and mysterious grandeur, and their own growing sense of romantic destiny.

Gallantly, impulsively, Neil agrees to take Marina and her 10-year-old daughter back to the United States with him on a tourist visa and decide what to do later. But something goes very wrong in his small American community and its featureless housing development soon after they arrive. Worryingly, it is part of Neil’s job to investigate some kind of toxic poisoning of the water table. There is something wrong in the American soil itself.

The transplantation of Marina to America does not take; she becomes unhappy and restive, a lost figure, like Monica Vitti in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert. For his part, Neil becomes aware of a beautiful childhood friend, Jane (Rachel McAdams): Malick contrives a budding relationship between them that plays out like an alternative-reality love affair. And against all this, Malick shows us the sad and lonely life of the local priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who is wrestling with his own sense of despair: there is a very moving sequence when a cleaner (significantly, the cleaner of the stained-glass windows) exhorts him to go out into the world and feel the power of God.

As Marina’s visa runs out, Neil is confronted with the crisis of choice. Should he simply get married to Marina, and take a bold leap of faith that will create its own happy ending? Should he not simply consecrate the love revealed to them at Mont Saint-Michel? Or is he, in his heart, uneasy about this holiday romance with a dangerous and exotic French creature, in comparison with whom Jane is the obvious and safer bet? Would marrying her simply be a terrible mistake?

Perhaps in a spirit of compromise, Neil and Marina are shown going to the courthouse for a secular union, which is witnessed by a handcuffed prisoner — a brilliant, if contrived, moment.

The absence of God and the presence of love are the two poles of this created world; a world perceived in a trance or delirium, and in which the problem of God gives an inexpressibly painful kind of meaning to the immediate, agonised problem of finding a complete knowledge of another human being. Both Paris and the mid-American heartland look like something from another planet, something witnessed, in delirious detail, under the influence of a powerful drug. There is a rich excess in this movie, and the sensual profusion is not completely absorbed into its texture. Yet only a filmmaker as intelligent and idealistic as Malick could have created this kind of surplus value. — © Guardian News and Media 2013

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