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To The Wonder – Terrence Malik, Joyous, intimate but flawed




To The Wonder – Terrence Malik

Joyous. Intimate. Unsettling, Sobering. Thought-provoking. Cinematically masterly: cinematography, editing, musical score. And a mesmerising performance by Olga Kurylenko.

For all the graphic sex that has become an unremarkable, unremarked norm in modern movies, true intimacy is rare. The long opening sequence of Malik’s much under-rated film conveys a palpable sense of the instinctive intimacy Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) share in being in love. Neil’s quiet inwardness offers an air of strength and stability that allows Marina’s spontaneous, intoxicating free spirit full rein. Kurylenko is nothing less than entrancing in these opening scenes: so free, so open and unself-conscious that we fear for her. Rightly perhaps – though Malik in the end leaves this unresolved. Perhaps. Yes it’s that kind of film: allusive and elusive – but engrossing throughout.

One of Malik’s great qualities as a director is his ability to intimate the inner lives of his characters through what he shows but does not explain; reveals but does not describe. He demands much of his viewer: and with little action and an impressionistic narrative he doesn’t make it any easier. But if you engage with his characters they become very real to the imagination: you feel with them.

To The Wonder is an elegiac exploration of love and its many forms. Seventy years-old this year, there is an wistful tone to Malik’s depiction of what it is to be in love. It is tempting to feel that the thrill and all-encompassing experience of being in love is the exclusive prerogative of our youth. And one feels that a sense of loss adds an air of melancholy to his treatment of the passion and tenderness, the innocently impulsive intimacy of Neil and Marina’s love for one another.

First seen amidst the breath-taking natural beauty of the rocky tidal island that is Mont St Michel, threatened daily by the incoming tides, Neil and Marina’s relationship blossoms further in Paris where her 10 year-old daughter by a disastrous early marriage is the first of a number of fundamental changes to their inner emotional dynamic.

Neil takes Marina and Tatiana with him to an anonymous, almost featureless small town in the US where he appears to be conducting ongoing testing of industrial pollution of the environment. Marina’s spontaneity with Neil persists; but whereas before this seemed to draw its life and energy from the world around her, which she then expressed to Neil: it now seems confined to her time with him and constrained by a social environment in which she is ill at ease and from which she can draw no strength. Tatiana is also unsettled.

In a parallel storyline we meet Javier Bardem’s Father Quintana who is possessed of perhaps the truest but most perplexing form of religious faith: one constantly questing and questioning with a clear-eyed understanding that faith is a grace that must be renewed every day in the light of the inevitable tragedies and sadnesses of the human condition. Doubt strengthens true faith: it only undermines weak faith.

Here I think is Malik’s central theme: faith is also one of the many kinds of love and that all forms, romantic, physical, spiritual, always require something of us – courage to dare to love; and determination to constantly renew it. To love is not just to risk loss: it is, given time and our mortality, to guarantee it and the desolation that entails. Loss is part of our journey. Through Quintana Malik appears to approve the redemptive power of Christianity but in the priest’s struggle of faith as with the loss of innocence in Neil and Marina’s feelings for one another – one senses as much doubt as conviction. Malik’s initial question: are Quintana’s love of God expressed as faith; and Neil and Marina’s love expressed in emotional and physical spontaneity – of the kind strengthened or undermined by the doubt and uncertainty life brings?

There is a quote in George Eliot’s Middlemarch that always struck me:

1st Gentleman: “Methinks our chains are fetters that we forge ourselves.”
2nd Gentleman: “Aye, but methinks ‘tis the world that brings the iron.”

For Quintana, Neil and Marina – truly it is the world, the uncontrollable, randomness of events, that changes how they are able to feel, the one about his vocation, the couple about each other and the world they share.

All the descriptive power Malik has always displayed as a director is here to see. But as with the Tree of Life here again he appears to me to have abandoned one of his most fundamental strengths: from Badlands to The Thin Red Line this was his absolute refusal to be judgemental, especially in contexts almost screaming out for it: whether the gratuitous violence of apparently motiveless crime or purposeful violence of war.

In both recent films Malik appears to skew our response towards a traditional religious metaphysic which undermines the aesthetic detachment that made his earlier films so resonant. To the question above one feels he decided at the outset that only the love in religious faith can be sustained. The weakness of To The Wonder, as with Tree of Life is that while once he rigorously left us to decide between contradictory possibilities: now he makes a choice which by implication he invites us to share. And he skews the evidence on the way.

As I remarked in my review of Tree Of Life – while he is clearly drawn towards women and revealingly descriptive in his portrayal of them – they seem a mystery to him: like a puzzle he can neither solve nor give up. OK so with all of us men I guess: but having first entranced us with Marina, as his emotional narrative proceeds she seems to become more and more inscrutable. We lose her. Worse: at one point he seems to express his own perplexity about her in a form of explanation. She tells us in voice-over that she feels she has a second woman inside her: the one who flies heavenwards (who we have seen) and the other who is drawn ‘earthwards’. As this self-observation coincides with a less than convincing betrayal of trust Malik seems perilously close to the clichéd polarities of woman as Saint and whore; the Eve of Adam’s downfall etc. Not only does this undermine the detached, non-judgemental power of all that went before but can be seen as pandering to the very machocentricity that distorts current attitudes in the major Christian Churches, especially the Catholicism in which Malik was raised.

Re-inforcing the distortion this introduces is the fact that the quiet strength of Affleck’s Neil in the early part of the movie, as the film progresses strikes us as having become a detached taciturnity; a withdrawn incapacity to respond, develop and deepen the love so equally shared at the beginning. Malik seems to me to be inviting us to see the causes underlying Marina’s later behaviour and the emotional difficulties between her and Neil as lying within her – rather than as seems pretty clear as having more to do with Neil’s emotionally withdrawn nature that observes rather than any longer participates in her spontaneity and freedom of spirit. One almost feels that Malik does not see or value the most poignant loss in his film – the gradual erosion and destruction of Marina’s spontaneity and freedom of spirit – ground down before Neil’s emotional constraint. We lose the Marina of the opening and Malik doesn’t convince us that this was the only possible outcome.

In this Neil seems to perfectly replicate in his response to Marina, Malik’s own response to his film: the stunning, thrilling truthfulness we felt at the beginning, towards the end becoming ill-at-ease, uncertain and muddled.

That said this is a film of aesthetic aspiration: Malik is trying to explore important, complex, deep issues and in an industry where these qualities are conspicuous by their absence much of the time – he is to be congratulated.

Much better than critical response suggests even if, like Tree of Life it doesn’t somehow make a coherent whole.


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