Malick’s To the Wonder: film as film, pure and simple

To The Wonder

‘Self-indulgent twaddle’, muttered the woman in the row behind as the credits rolled at the end of To the Wonder, Terrence Malick’s latest film, when I saw it in FACT the other day.  For good measure she added that he ‘couldn’t tell a story’.  She would certainly appreciate reading Chris Tookey’s entertaining Daily Mail review, in which he advised readers to ‘bale out before the end and do something more culturally rewarding, such as stare at your ceiling for a couple of hours’.

I can see why people might react in this way: there are aspects of the film that are frankly infuriating, something it has in common with Malick’s previous film, The Tree of Life. But you don’t go to see a Malick film expecting standard Hollywood fare: you really have to surrender to the poetry and musicality of his distinctive approach to film-making.
His yearning meditations on love and transcendence flirt with portentousness, yet they are so achingly felt and beautifully made you can’t help wanting to like them. (Anthony Quinn, The Independent)

Ben Affleck (Neil) and Olga Kurylenko (Marina)

The story that my woman in the cinema thought so badly told doesn’t, in itself, amount to anything very much.  Neil, a wooden and taciturn American in Paris (Ben Affleck) meets Marina, a beautiful young divorcee (Olga Kurylenko) who has a ten year old daughter.  The couple fall passionately in love and the three of them leave France for Neil’s home in the American mid-west. The title refers to Mont-Saint-Michel, the medieval abbey on the Normandy coast known for centuries as the ‘wonder of the western world’ which the couple visit in the film’s lyrical opening sequence.

The couple have a passionate on-off affair, with Marina returning to France for a time, dispirited by life in the small American town and its featureless housing development.  While she’s away, Neil takes up with a blonde he knew back at school – a horse-riding ranch owner played by Rachel McAdams. But Malick doesn’t unfold his narrative in the conventional way: rather it’s as if a photo album has been thrown in the air, and its contents have fallen every which way.  It feels like a poem or prayer, snippets of voice-over and images edited together to create a dream-like collage. In a press release for the film, Ben Affleck said:

The film feels to me like more a memory of a life than a literal story in real time of someone’s life, the way movies more commonly are. This pastiche of impressionistic moments, skipping across the character’s life and moving in a nonlinear way, mirror, in my mind, the way one remembers one’s life. It’s a little hypnotic and you’re a little bit in a daze — it’s more fluid than real life is.

To The Wonder 5

This is the style of film-making we’ve come to expect from Malick: a shimmering kaleidoscope of images and words, very few of which are dialogue.  Like musical composition Malick’s inimitable, poetic manner owes a great deal to the contribution that cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki has previously made to The Tree of Life and The New World.  Here, as in Malick’s other films the words we hear are mainly thoughts or memories, spoken as a voiceover:
Newborn. I open my eyes. I melt. Into the eternal night. A spark. You got me out of the darkness. You gathered me up from earth. You’ve brought me back to life.
I admired To the Wonder, as I have his other films, less for its story and more as a powerful and artistic attempt to do more with the medium of cinema. It’s film as film – pure and simple.  But it’s far from being a total success.  Those spoken lines – ‘What is this love that loves us?’ – may sound poetic and profound at first hearing, but on closer examination reveal little.  There are visual irritants, too: Kurylenko twirls endlessly across sands, through cornfields and supermarket aisles in a manner quite bewitching to begin with but tiresome after an hour.
As you might expect, there’s more to this than simply the story of a rocky romance. At one point Marina, in a voiceover, says, ‘Love lifts us up to the heavens – but then we fall to the earth’.  And Malick seems to be suggesting something about aspects of our world and culture that drag us down.  There is a dedicated Catholic priest (Javier Bardem) whose vocation brings him into contact with those at the frayed edge of society – poor, brutalised, mentally defeated – who reject his offering of faith.  The priest himself is a man torn by doubt.  Meanwhile, the town is polluted, suburbia a putrid landscape where an oily sludge oozes up out of the polluted ground in back yards, poisoning residents.  For some reason not made clear – is it his job, or is he part of a community protest? – Neil goes around the neighbourhood taking readings and gathering evidence of the despoliation.  It is as if, where love should flourish, there is only ruination and loss of faith.

To The Wonder 2

Some critics have seen parallels with Antonioni’s 1964 masterpiece Red Desert, in which Antonioni portrays alienated individuals wandering an industrial wasteland in a world of technological change.  Monica Vitti’s depression and sense of isolation in that film is mirrored here by Olga Kurylenko’s despair in surburbia.  But, whereas Antonioni’s vision was irredeemably bleak, Malick offers some counterpoint in scenes shot during the hour before sunset, using constantly moving, handheld cameras, that turn everything golden and entrancing.

To the Wonder Terrence Malick

Attention is sometimes drawn to Malick’s own faith, and the extent to which it determines his approach as film-maker.  He was raised in Waco, Texas, as an Orthodox Christian, but perhaps just as pertinent is his background as a student and teacher of philosophy (he studied philosophy at Harvard, where he specialised in Heidegger).  So we might see him as a philosopher who makes films – films that pose fundamental philosophical questions such as:  What is reality? What is the meaning of life? Does God exist? What is right or wrong?

Throughout his career (extraordinarily unproductive by Hollywood standards with only six films in 40 years), he has come to be recognised as an auteur with a distinct cinematic vision.  After two acclaimed movies in the 1970s (Badlands, 1973, and Days of Heaven, 1978), Malick disappeared for 20 years.  He re-emerged in 1998 with The Thin Red Line, then it was another seven years before he returned with the elegiac The New World (2005), a lyrical interpretation of the legend of Pocahontas and John Smith.  The Tree of Life followed in 2011.

Part of what makes Malick unique is that he aims not just to tell a story but to reveal the world. In The Tree of Life there is a voice that says, ‘There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of grace’. This duality is evident in all of Malick’s films which all present images of Paradise lost, of idyllic encounters in Edenic landscapes brought down to earth and confronted with the realities of quotidian existence.

To me, Malick’s vision seems to be infused with elements of animism or American transcendentalism as much as Christian references. Lubezki’s camera seems always to gaze toward a transcendent light, figures silhouetted against a field of waving wheat, a distant lightning bolt.  Malick seems to invite us to approach his films as phenomena to be experienced, films that capture the wonder and mystery of the universe.

To The Wonder 4

Those rambling philosophical voiceovers; the placid images of nature, offering quiet contrast to the evil deeds of men; the stunning cinematography, often achieved with natural light; the striking use of music – here is a filmmaker with a clear sensibility and aesthetic who makes narrative films that are neither literary nor theatrical, in the sense of foregrounding dialogue, event, or character, but are instead principally cinematic, movies that suggest narrative, emotion, and idea through image and sound.
- Chris Wisniewski in Reverse Shot about Days of Heaven and The New World

Maybe there’s something in the fact that Malick delved deep into the philosophy of Heidegger, who coined a term – geworfenheit - that refers to being thrown without explanation into an existence governed by obscure rules.  Malick studied the philosophy of Martin Heidegger at Harvard and Oxford. His films seem to share Heidegger’s notion that the world reveals itself through our moods and emotions, not cognition and rationalism. ‘Colour shines and wants only to shine. When we analyze it in rational terms by measuring its wavelengths, it is gone’, wrote Heidegger.

Perhaps there’s a key to understanding Malick’s films, too, in the thoughts of political philosopher John Gray.  Just after I had seen To the Wonder I came across a review of his latest book, The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths.  In it, Gray describes his personal outlook as being one of ‘godless mysticism’, an attitude of contemplative gratitude for the only life we will ever have.  Malick may not accept the godless bit, but these words of Gray’s seem to be apposite to the films that Malick has composed:

Godless mysticism cannot escape the finality of tragedy, or make beauty eternal. It does not dissolve inner conflict into the false quietude of oceanic calm. All it offers is mere being. There is no redemption from being human. But no redemption is needed.

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The Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw gave To the Wonder a four-star review when he saw it at the Venice film festival (where it was greeted with a storm of hissing and booing – I got a bit of that in a Liverpool cinema last week):

At its best, Malick’s cinematic rhapsody is glorious; during his uncertain moments, he appears to be repeating himself. But what delight there is in this film. … Malick gets this treatment, while the most insipid, unadventurous movies here can fade to black and roll credits in respectful quiet. I can only say that I responded to its passion and idealism.

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2 thoughts on “Malick’s To the Wonder: film as film, pure and simple

  1. Thanks for that. I always get something out of a Malik movie at a spiritual level. I admire his courage in continuing to make personal films which don’t follow the dreary template of action, graphic violence and sex. Do you think that the criticism of his work has a lot to do with the contemporary need for simple explanations and immediate gratification? I often feel this tension within me when I watch his films – a struggle between a desire to see a story unfold as coherently and satisfyingly as possible, and a disappointment with myself for being too shallow and not enjoying the meditative, poetic moment.

    • ‘criticism of his work has a lot to do with the contemporary need for simple explanations and immediate gratification’ – I agree. There are so few films around now that come close to the visionary statements of Tarkovsky, Herzog or Ozu (to take just three examples).
      ‘the dreary template of action, graphic violence and sex’ – I was outraged, on a visit to London in January, on the Underground, to have the obscene poster for ‘Bullet to the Head’ thrust in my face at every turn.

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