(Terrence Malick, 2012)
Since his return to cinema with the sublime The Thin Red Line in 1998, Terrence Malick has refined and honed his style into something utterly singular, ambitious and earnest. Nobody else makes films quite the way Malick does; and in Tree of Life and To The Wonder he has arrived at a newly personal place in his work, semi-autobiographical but still pursuing the themes which have been present since Badlands and Days of Heaven in the 1970s. In doing so, he has slowly lessened his reliance on narrative. His mature films are intent on other qualities, the stories elliptical vehicles for Malick's ruminations on nature, faith, love and death.
To The Wonder is basically a love story: it begins in Paris, depicting the blossoming relationship between an American named Neil (Ben Affleck) and a vivacious Frenchwoman, Marina (Olga Kurelyenko). That relationship is tracked by Emmanuel Luzbecki's ceaselessly mobile camera through the boulevards and parks of the city, and onto the "wonder" of the title, Mont St Michel, which the couple visit and admire in silent awe. When Neil returns to the USA, Marina and her young daughter Tatiana accompany him, but they are out of place in the wide spaces and new suburbs of the Great Plains, and when they return to France, Neil rekindles a relationship with Jane (Rachel McAdams), an old flame. But Marina misses him, and they marry to ensure she can stay in the States with him, a move which does not solve the problems between them. Meanwhile, their Parish Priest (Javier Bardem) is experiencing his own crisis of faith.
That makes it sound more interested in plot than it is; instead Malick is interested in movement, light, and his usual questions about the mystery of existence. Here he equates the love between a man and a woman with the love between human beings and God; both being relationships filled with yearning and doubt. In voiceovers Kurelyenko wonders at her own capacity for love and the mystery of her lover's thoughts, echoed by Bardem's curiosity about God's love for his creations. The often extraordinary visuals follow all these characters in something like a ballet; Malick soundtracks everything to a wide range of classical music, and we watch people as they twirl and circle one another, coming together for embraces and caresses, then separating. The states of the central relationships in this film are always evident through the body language and mise en scene, and never through the dialogue - there is barely any - or the voiceovers, which are always thematically relevant but rarely give us any story information.
Affleck speaks only a few words in the entire film, and spends much of his time skulking slowly in the corners of the frame, basking in the light cast by Kurelyenko and McAdams. That doesn't really suit him as an actor - his best work has come in roles where he is fast-talking or boorish (Dazed & Confused, Boiler Room, Good Will Hunting), but his awkward hesitancy fits with the character in a way. He is meant to be a little uncomfortable with the natural spark and uncomplicated spontaneity of the women in his life, and his bent, embarrassed shuffling around them communicates this nicely.
It is startling throughout how adept Malick is at visual shorthand and just how much he is able to suggest with his fluent editing.
Many of the criticisms of this film - and there have been many - have called it self-parodic, but that is the danger of a style so distinctive and an authorial voice so focused as Malick's. He dares to make serious films about profound subjects; he asks what is love, what and where is God, what does it mean that we need such a deity, how can the world be so terrible and yet so beautiful at the same time...and he asks these questions in a hushed, awed whisper, unashamed of its own need. He never answers his queries, either (but then how could he?), understanding instead that sometimes it is enough to pose the right questions.
His visuals have become instantly recognisable, and the way he has managed to divorce them from any narrative content seems to be what makes his work so difficult for many to take. To The Wonder is full of his trademark magic hour sequences, of beautiful, seemingly random shots of nature, of endless shots of Kurelyenko, in particular, dancing and cavorting through fields and on beaches.
Here she is revealed as one of the great beauties of modern cinema, and her intuitive performance carries a good deal of the film. She has some background in ballet, which suits Malick's apparent aims here - in seeking to break from traditional narrative forms he has made his recent films feel more like the musical pieces he has used within them, and she is his lead dancer here, her movements and body-shapes expressing ideas more simply and beautifully than any clumsy dialogue could. The other star here is the sun, glimpsed dipping below the horizon or through a haze of cloud, throwing shadows in long grass or bathing lovers in morning light. For Malick it - and nature, by extension, here seen not only through landscape but in buffalo, horses, bugs on a window - suggests the very presence of God in the physical world.
Let us not forget; this is the first Malick film set wholly in the modern world, and without the supporting excuse of a historical setting, some of his reliance on gesture, on whispered invocations and such self-conscious poetry might seem jarringly unmoored to some viewers, but to me they seemed absolutely magnificent. He addresses modernity fleetingly - Affleck seems to work as some sort of environmental scientist, and we see him take readings and measure levels of lead in water, the suggestion being that the Earth itself has been poisoned by man and his doubt, greed and lust. Shots of his leading man trudging across quarries and up to his knees in mud offer a dissonant echo of earlier shots of the lovers on the sand at Mont St Michel and in the streets of Paris.
There is always that sense with Malick; however much detractors can claim that his work seems almost randomly generated, his guiding intelligence is obvious behind every image. His is a cinema of ideas and of sensuality, of meaningful beauty. Which is a nice way of describing To the Wonder, I think.