To The Wonder
French birds…bit nuts, eh?
All terms you’ll see repeated ad infinitum in the next few weeks as critics soak their bibs with drool over Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder. And, if you want it to be, it is all of these things. To The Wonder is a hypnotic, sensual, lushly beautiful, spellbinding exploration of love and spirituality that unfolds with the feverish, dreamy intensity of a doomed romance.
It’s also complete and utter tosh, an hour and 52 minutes of America’s Greatest Living Filmmakerä scratching his beard ruefully while muttering to himself in the barely audible whisper everyone uses in this film: “French birds…bit nuts, eh?”
Parisienne Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and American Mid-Westerner Neil (Ben Affleck) fall ecstatically in love in France and spend their days skipping joyfully through the park hand-in-hand with Marina’s ten-year-old daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline). After visiting Mont Saint-Michel, where Marina’s voiceover breathily informs us “We climbed the steps to the Wonder,” (apparently not the euphemism it cries out to be), Neil asks Marina and Tatiana to return to the USA with him.
Once in the USA however the cracks start to show. The kind of stereotypically kooky free spirit American filmmakers believe all French women to be, Marina, who’s constantly whirling like a dreamy dervish through wheat fields or dancing with mops dans le supermarché (gotta love those kooky French chicks), just doesn’t fit in with the folks back home and she and Tatiana find life tough in rural Oklahoma. Neil meanwhile seems constantly to be working; an environmental investigator in a town that seems to rely on fracking, he’s not winning many friends in the local community even if tar is bubbling up through their patios, infecting their water and poisoning the earth. As the relationship falters, Neil encounters and reconnects with old girlfriend Jane (Rachel McAdams), entering into a romance with her when Marina’s visa runs out and she and Tatiana are forced to return to France.
Meanwhile the town’s mournful Catholic priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) looks on ineffectually while suffering his own crisis of faith, his vocation shaken by his lonely inner turmoil and existential melancholy.
Almost a companion piece to 2011’s The Tree Of Life, which like this was also an extended exercise in Christian-inflected navel-gazing, To The Wonder is both beautiful and aggravating. You’ll probably read a lot of reviews which will tell you how intelligent and profound it is, that it’s a deeply experimental love story, that it’s not really a movie but more of a visual tone poem.
To The Wonder is the distilled essence of cod-profundity with all the depth of a two-hour Marc Jacobs fragrance commercial that’s likely to appeal most to teenage poets, 20-year-old film students and critics. Look at Marina dance, she’s such a free spirited European Catholic while Neil can only watch disapproving and perplexed like a stuffy Presbyterian at a key party: NEIL IS AMERICA! Look at the pollution bubbling up out of the ground, how can their love took root and grow on poisoned earth? MODERN AMERICAN SOCIETY POISONS LOVE! Look at Tatiana’s awestruck wonder at the choice and diversity on offer as she and Marina dance around the supermarket: THEY DON’T HAVE SUPERMARKETS IN FRANCE! Admittedly, that last one is more likely to be a comment on rampant consumerism and the USA’s culture of excess but you get the point.
The script is sophomoric. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy finds other girl. First girl comes back. Complications ensue. Meanwhile local priest looks a bit sad and wonders if God loves him (possibly voicing the audience’s fears or maybe just Malick’s). That’s really about it. There’s nothing particularly experimental going on here, you’re not watching Last Year At Marienbad. There’s no riddle to solve which will impart some deep, profound secret about the nature of love, life and the Universe. It’s just a fairly conventional narrative with huge chunks of plot missing, a romantic melodrama with most of the drama cut out. Like most Malick films, the list of those who didn’t make the final cut is longer than the list of those who did. While he excised completely from The Thin Red Line the likes of Bill Pullman, Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman, Viggo Mortensen and Mickey Rourke, missing from To The Wonder are Rachel Weisz, Amanda Peet, Barry Pepper, Michael Sheen and Jessica Chastain. And, if we’re being honest, the contributions of both Rachel McAdams and Javier Bardem, not to mention that whole environmental pollution storyline, feel a little, well, truncated, as if Malick merely lost interest in them in favour of shots of Olga Kurylenko dancing with a chicken. Or a mop.
There’s little real dialogue (Affleck’s lucky if he gets 10 lines) and what there is, is mostly voiceover; Marina breathlessly ruminating on love in French, Father Quintana’s tortured internal theological debate in whispered Spanish. There’s a lot of whispering in To The Wonder. That said the portentousness of the voiceover is aided immensely by being delivered in breathy French by Kurylenko who manages to lend Malick’s high school poetry depth and meaning while the teenaged musings on God and faith benefit from Bardem’s Spanish. There’s little one can really say about the performances, the actors feel more like movable pieces of very pretty landscape Malick can control: Gaze into the distance. Squint into the setting sun. Look perplexed. Look soulful. Laugh. Caper with that mop. The male actors in particular are ill-served by Malick. Affleck is called upon merely to look puzzled and perplexed, like someone who’s just passed gas and is wondering if they’ve accidentally soiled themselves, while Bardem’s performance is reminiscent of one of those depressed lions you see at the zoo who dimly remembers the veldt but knows he’s never going back. Kurylenko and McAdams at least manage to hint at the performances they may have given; Kurylenko is a sensuous, vibrant presence you ache for when she’s not on screen, McAdams a vulnerable, wounded creature you ache for when she is. It’s unfortunate that the only performer who matters is Malick.
Ultimately, for all its meditating on the nature of love and romance, the deepest question is one To The Wonder fails to ask: If you’d snagged Olga Kurylenko and were blissfully happy in Paris, why the Hell would you move to Oklahoma? But then, given that Malick was an American living in France who married a French woman (degree of kookiness unspecified) and dragged her back to live in Oklahoma only for the relationship to break up and for him to then marry his alleged high school girlfriend, well, maybe To The Wonder is just free therapy for Malick, the cinematic equivalent of a Taylor Swift or Adele song.
To The Wonder is undeniably, breathtakingly beautiful. It’s gorgeous to look at. Kurylenko is captivating. Scenes unfold with the hallucinatory, half-remembered intensity of a fever dream that take root in your memory. It’s quiet. It’s a film that gives you the space and distance for reflection, something rare indeed in modern cinema. It’s unfortunate then that, upon reflection, there’s no real satisfying emotional or intellectual substance to the film. But damn, is it pretty!
Written and Directed by:
Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem & Rachel McAdams
Arthouse Romantic Drama
UK Cinema Release Date:
Friday 22nd February