by Allan Fish
(USA 2012 112m) DVD1/2 (eventually)
Love makes us one
p Sarah Green, Nicolas Gondo d/w Terrence Malick ph Emmanuel Lubezki ed Keith Fraase, A.J.Edwards, Shane Hazen, Mark Yoshikawa, Christopher Roldan m Hanan Townshend art Jack Fisk cos Jacqueline West
Ben Affleck (Neil), Olga Kurylenko (Marina), Rachel McAdams (Jane), Javier Bardem (Father Quintana), Tatiana Chiline (Tatiana), Ramina Mondello (Anna),
There was a time when the idea of a new Terrence Malick film was something to be treated like the announcement that Brigadoon was due to show up again; something quite literally of myth. The gaps between films have been getting progressively smaller, but here To the Wonder arrives barely twelve months after The Tree of Life and, even more wondrous, there are two more on the horizon. Has Terry been holding back all these scripts for decades? What has prompted him to suddenly make films not with the alacrity of a Bresson or a Kubrick but of a Fassbinder?
The Tree of Life is a good indicator of what was to come. To the Wonder is even more a stream of cinematic consciousness. I was recently asked by a friend what it was about, and had to remind him this was Terry Malick we’re dealing with. On the surface, there is an essential plot, of the love affair of an American man, Neil, and French Marina. We see them in what we assume is the early stages of their relationship, in her native Paris and at Mont St Michel. Neil asks Marina and her little girl Tatiana to come and live with him in Oklahoma. They accept, but over the course of their stay Marina grows restless, her daughter grows homesick and she decides to return. In this period, Neil meets and rekindles an affair with an old high school friend Jane. But Marina returns, this time without Tatiana who prefers to stay with her estranged father. She and Neil get married, but still she’s restless. In addition, there’s a subplot involving a local Hispanic Catholic priest living in Neil’s neighbourhood who’s doubting himself.
Taken purely in terms of its plot, this would be maddening and the character of Marina is so capricious as to make you want to shake her. Yet Malick’s film doesn’t follow any sort of traditional narrative structure, his camera carried along as if on the wind like the fallen leaves on the ground. It’s as if the audience is bidden to follow by the character in front of us. There are flashes both back and to the future, almost subliminal, as if flashing before a barely conscious soul. It’s a feeling intensified by the collective cinematic imagery that we, the viewer, bring to proceedings, and not just earlier films from Malick’s filmography but also those of other directors start to flash back into our consciousness. Images of Mont St Michel, for example, cannot help but recall Yoshida’s not entirely dissimilar Farewell to the Summer Light. Shots of various protagonists at waist height walking slowly through the long grass seem lifted from the Elysian dreams of the dying Maximus in Gladiator. We may not hear the familiar tones of Hans Zimmer, but we’re hardly being short-changed when Malick accompanies so many crucial sequences with Wagner’s haunting ‘Parsifal’. This use of Wagner veers us back to Von Trier’s Melancholia. It keeps going…
And what of the conscious images, full of Malick’s trademark use of magic hour photography, with nearly every other shot taking place at either sunset or sunrise. When the sun is in a more traditional overhead position, we get the equally trademark sun-ripples on water, giving the impression of it being a fantastic mirage. There’s equally typical use of profiles and what I have come to regard as the Malick shot – a medium close of a figure in what is otherwise a long shot, often featuring another figure in the distance. Affleck, Kurylenko and McAdams may do nothing but look lovely, but again it’s typical Malick to use shall we say limited actors because he lets their faces do the talking (see also Richard Gere, Colin Farrell, Brad Pitt). It’s a visual poem of the highest order but made for an audience who won’t appreciate it. It received mixed reviews at the Venice and Toronto festivals; but that’s really a seal of approval.