Wednesday, April 3, 2013

To The Wonder

Love As An Elusive, Selfish, Blissful Or Unhappy Entity

Olga Kurylenko as Marina and Ben Affleck as Neil in Terrence Malick's drama "To The Wonder".  Magnolia Pictures

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Do you ever marvel at love?  Are you thankful for it?  Do you know where you'd be without it?  In Terrence Malick's blunt and beautiful visual opera "To The Wonder",  love, not the cosmos, is the engine of misery, magnificence and mystery that engulfs Marina (Olga Kurylenko), her husband Neil (Ben Affleck) and a disillusioned priest (Javier Bardem) in contemporary Oklahoma.  Set within the chambers of Marina's mind, Mr. Malick's film, a flickering poem of thoughts and memories, sees Marina meeting Neil in France where they will fall in love.  Paris, the city of lovers, is where Marina is raising her pre-teen daughter Tatiana alone.

Love is an elusive, confounding and healing force, and Mr. Malick's film challenges its audience to not only bear witness to its powers but its agonies.  "To The Wonder" asks us to bask in the glory of love as well as the potential loss of it, and to realize that love and divinity are all around us all the time, even as we feel otherwise in our everyday lives.  Mr. Malick's films (particularly this one, and its close cousin "The Tree Of Life") are deeply personal and sincere.  In his work Mr. Malick has long viewed human beings as but a tiny fraction of the whole universe, represented and measured as dwarfed figures in it against other creatures great and small. 

"To The Wonder", a far colder, more wayward and perplexing film than its immediate predecessor, presents its central figures in such a way as to be as complex as they are irrelevant.  By contrast, plants and water are often given large, fixed space and outsized close-ups.  They are pronounced, steady and certain presences, while human movement is fleeting, tentative and fanciful.  Some humans in "To The Wonder" move like butterflies or slugs rather than solid bodies.  They are performance artists in their own philosophical adventure.  Mr. Malick brings this disjointed ballet to the screen, peppering it with graceful, thoughtful and investigatory notes. 

The men of "To The Wonder" are isolated, selfish or volatile creatures.  The women of "To The Wonder" are grace-noters, free spirits and ballerinas (at one point Marina clutches ballerina shoes while calling Oklahoma "home".)  Mr. Malick has taken this tack before.  In "The Tree Of Life" Mr. Pitt represented nature, while Jessica Chastain was grace.  The director's prior film is far better, showcasing a celestial sparkle and warmth, but "To The Wonder" has more active, fertile and malleable characters even if time stands still for all of them.

It matters not what Neil (an abstract figure in an abstract experience) feels, for his words (nor anyone else's) are rarely if ever heard for the sake of just spoken dialogue.  The words spoken by humans in Mr. Malick's film are felt and depicted cinematically rather than merely heard in the medium -- voiceovers and lucid whispers of thought and conscience -- sensations blown along in the wind.

In that vein "To The Wonder" is pure sensation, dream and thought: silence, serenity, struggle and seduction, supplemented by moments many films as "entertainment" would presumably view as superfluous, leaving them on a cutting room floor.  The film occurs over a period of several years in the 21st century but virtually every scene in it is fixed both in the recent past and present, often at the same time.  We view an evolving Marina, who devotes herself and her body to finding answers to questions about love.  "What is the love that loves me?", she asks.  I think Marina's question is a genuine inquiry, not a pretentious one.  Watching this impressionist work I loved, and was thrilled and fascinated by characters who sincerely if nobly entertain themselves and the audience with such questions.  Do you ever ask how things just come to be?  Do you trust in the answer?  Is there an answer?  Is there even a question?  Or is it pure feeling?

In an iPhone and iPad-driven short-attention spanned tabloid generation, "To The Wonder" is a perfect, frustrating antidote.  This is lyrical "thought cinema" and dream realm at its best.  One of the finest scenes sees 10-year-old Tatiana writing on Neil's back with her finger.  "I'm writing my thoughts", she says.  What better way to represent thoughts -- things you can't see -- on film, and through the eyes of a child, who in many clichéd films would talk about an imaginary friend you couldn't see? 

Swaths of "To The Wonder" are sensual, not just in its amorous interactions but in capturing inanimate objects: furniture, garden hoses, dirt, chairs and lights as part of a totality of a character's experience -- as what that character observes around them as they think about whether love overrides infidelity.  "Love," someone said to me recently, "doesn't conquer all."  This is what the players of this open, sensitive film experience.  Marriage doesn't alter that equation, either.  The human animal itself is the key, not the conferred, state-incentivized status of a relationship. 

Mr. Malick occasionally suggests a disdain for men as a instant-gratification species, with women as the last hope of humanity.  Neil, an environmental employee, inspects dirt and earth, tentatively weighing it in Oklahoma's poor neighborhoods (these houses aren't the O'Brien home of 1952, even as they have that feel), while Marina undulates in the earth looking for grounding and connection in the place she instinctually knows she is of.  She may bounce from France to the United States but she always belongs to the Earth.  (Curiously, a lot of Marina's time is spent on her back.)  Neil and Marina are remote figures.  They live in a newly-erected house in a rural area.  They are naturally and literally on shaky ground.  The poor however, seem more sure of their footing in life. 

Neil and Marina are like the subjects in Rene Magritte's classic artwork "The Lovers": doomed, impassioned, frustrated, mysterious, and select images of Neil and Marina play into this idea.  One in particular sees Neil place a black cloth over Marina's face, a symbol of Neil's own sense of vacancy and how he views the woman who will, or has (depending on what point of time it is) become his wife.

Watching "To The Wonder" one is filled with the dreams, hopes and worries about love -- something so fragile and secure yet so ephemeral and enduring.  The fact that love is so complex and multi-faceted makes it such a conceptual challenge to delve into on film without it appearing instantly heavy-handed, pretentious or reverential.  Between these poles Mr. Malick seeks balance.  He's always thinking and processing as much as his characters are.  So enormous are the scope of questions about love that at times what I saw appeared to barely penetrate the surface, which, while making parts of the film shallow and limiting, illustrate the very strengths of "To The Wonder": there's so much to see here even as it appears that there is nothing at all. 

"To The Wonder", a yin and yang in its own right, has an openness and extraordinary constraint within its own parameters.  Its editing is vigorous and unruly, less polished, rougher.  Yet the film lingers on images that for some may provide mild discomfort.  Many of the shots here are similar if not identical to those in "The Tree Of Life".  The background of lots of scenes in "To The Wonder" is more dimensional than the foreground.   People (the film's men) tend to hide in the shadows, afraid to look within, while some of the film's women tend to be watchers though not voyeurs.  The degrees of limitation are punctuated by the conflicts within the characters.  "To The Wonder" is a film to visit not as entertainment but as a philosophical exercise, one not of elite First World musing but as cosmopolitan human investigation.

Perhaps Mr. Malick accepts that cinema, like his "Wonder"-ful characters, cannot fully convey (or contain) a meaningful exploration and explanation of life's most  profound questions.  Still, his otherwise incidental main characters are used to elevate and catalyze the issues that subsume them.  "To The Wonder" treats its humans as vessels in the search of something greater or more certain than themselves, wrapping them in spiritual quandary (the priest) or earnest sanctity (Marina).  In one scene American marriage as an institution is mocked, in a mildly humorous shot that makes some of Mr. Malick's scenes surprisingly more cynical than they might appear high-minded.

Each character is unhappy to a degree but they are unhappy specifically in the love they seek or envelope themselves in.  For Marina, whom Ms. Kurylenko gives an elegant, lively urgency, it's the depth of love and the trust it inherently engenders.  For the disengaged and barely introspective Neil (Mr. Affleck on detachment with rough edges ala Mr. Pitt's Mr. O'Brien), it's a lonely, isolated and selfish love.  Neil's affair with an old flame Jane (Rachel McAdams, good here in a brief appearance), is a self-sating stopgap while his Ukrainian native girlfriend Marina's visa expires, forcing her back to Paris.  Marina will return to Oklahoma and marry Neil for a green card so she can stay in the U.S.  The resumed relationship, like the yin and yang of love itself, will be fraught with uneasiness, contempt, betrayal and interludes of bliss. 

Ms. McAdams' character could just as well be Marina too -- the same character, not two distinct ones -- both to Neil (and the director).  Neil appears to view both women interchangeably.  Marina -- which means boat dock -- is the film's compassionate, perhaps naive center, who understands the selfishness of Neil's ways even as she's disturbed by them.  "To The Wonder" may be said to run counter to societal (and "sexist") stereotypic expectations: the women who feel pain at indiscretions don't necessarily have a scorn that burns through Hell.  There are men who aren't afraid to ask questions or for direction.  

Meanwhile, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem, portraying awkward perfectly) glories in God but feels bereft of the Almighty's touch.  He helps the sick, the poor but feels personally unfulfilled.  He is a student and servant of Christ but there's emptiness in his heart.  Mr. Malick doesn't explore any circumstances bringing the priest to the place he's in but uses other "smaller" incidental characters (including a carpenter) to augment themselves but mainly exacerbate or instruct these troubled (and upper class) souls.

The poor in "To The Wonder" are unvarnished, fragmented yet pure in their states of being, where their richer brethren are trapped by their own probing of life.  They hardly enjoy life but they do enjoy being in the moment of life, where "To The Wonder" always resides.  My one wish was that Mr. Malick, who grew up in a strict religious home, had brought the "least of these" even more into focus than the film's main figures.  At the very least though, Mr. Malick gives us a template to keep a very interesting discussion alive, and "To The Wonder" ensures that, inviting inevitable repeat viewings.

Also with: Tatiana Chilene, Romina Mondello.

"To The Wonder" opens on April 12 in select cities in the U.S. and Canada, and is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for some sexuality and nudity.  In Spanish, French and English languages, with English subtitles.  The film's running time is one hour and 53 minutes.

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