A radiant woman spins in a field, trailed by a seemingly weightless camera while a voice-over speaks lines like “You lifted me from the ground” and orchestral music swells. We are back in the world of director Terrence Malick, and make no mistake, “To the Wonder” is the most Malick-y film he has ever made.
“Wonder” is a hypnotic, wistful, often frustrating but utterly fascinating work that could only come from the suddenly prolific filmmaker. It takes the life-as-a-series-of-memories style of his controversial, Oscar-nominated “Tree of Life” to its near-breaking point, but it sees him succeed, once again, in creating a kind of cinematic tone poem that – for some viewers, at least – feels rapturous.
For the rest? When star Ben Affleck said that “Wonder” made “Tree of Life” look like “Transformers,” he wasn’t kidding. This is an almost dialogue-free, voice-over-heavy film, a visual swoon-fest shot by the great Emmanuel Lubezki that attempts to bring real romantic feeling to the big screen.
“To the Wonder” is Malick’s relationship drama, one that reportedly has biographical relevance for him. Like the film’s protagonist, Malick had a romance with a woman in France and moved her to America. The relationship ended in divorce.
It seems certain from the first moments of “To the Wonder” that the touchy-feely love affair between Affleck’s Neil and Olga Kurylenko’s Marina is destined to implode. As the couple wanders the gorgeous Mont Saint-Michel, a tidal island off the coast of Normandy, the air is unsettled and mysterious; Marina’s playful bites don’t seem quite as sweet as they should.
Neil is an Oklahoman in Paris, where Ukrainian divorcée Marina lives with her young daughter, the smart and tack-sharp Tatiana. Neil asks mother and daughter to return with him to the States and, a quick cut later, the trio is there.
He is an environmental inspector (one of the film’s many meandering subplots involves his work in a polluted housing project) and a quiet, rather ho-hum figure. He brings Marina and Tatiana to the land of Sonic drive-ins and grazing buffalo, failing to take notice of how alone and useless Marina feels.
Things collapse in a series of immaculately shot arguments – never has marital discord looked quite so lovely – and Marina heads back to Europe. While she’s gone, Neil is reunited with an old girlfriend, Jane (a somber Rachel McAdams), another doomed relationship.
But Neil is drawn back to Marina, and she eventually returns, only to find that things will never, ever be as hopeful as they were on Mont Saint-Michel.
During moments of bickering and infidelity, Malick’s camera never loses sight of the beauty of everyday life – even the aforementioned Sonic looks lovely on screen. And it is important that amid scenes of domestic horror, to Malick, the world can be inherently dazzling. A Catholic priest, Father Quintana, played by Javier Bardem, appears from time to time, speaking of a crisis in faith: “Everywhere you’re present. And still I can’t see you.” He drifts in and out, sad-eyed and pensive.
The scenes with Bardem’s priest are among the film’s strangest and least effective. Considering how many characters were supposedly cut from the film (Michael Sheen, Amanda Peet, Rachel Weisz, Barry Pepper and Michael Shannon all filmed scenes that were excised from Malick’s final cut), I’m surprised by how much of Father Quintana stayed in.
Bardem gives a nuanced, impassioned performance, and issues of faith and divine love are integral to late-period Malick and to the emotions of the embattled lovers. Still, these scenes feel distracting and unfocused.
Some viewers will find it unfocused or will fail to be engaged by the minimalist acting. It is easy to criticize Affleck’s stern-jawed performance, yet it is proper for his indecisive character. Kurylenko has the showier role, and the “Oblivion” and “Quantum of Solace” actress triumphs, wonderfully embodying a dissatisfied free spirit.
Much of the role requires her to look concerned, twirl and flop around – it really does – and it is to Kurylenko’s credit that such movements don’t seem in the least bit silly.
That is the essence of modern Malick – dancing on the line that separates the transcendent and the preposterous. His head may be permanently in the clouds, but if you can allow yourself to embrace the master filmmaker’s euphoric vision, you’ll find it’s a wondrous place to visit.
to the wonder
Three and a half stars
Starring: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem
Director: Terrence Malick
Running time: 113 minutes
Rating: R for sexuality and nudity.
The Lowdown: After falling in love with an American in Paris, a Ukrainian divorcée follows him to Oklahoma, but the two soon drift apart.