Sunday, 12 May 2013

I Write On Water What I Dare Not Say: Some Thoughts on Terrence Malick's "To The Wonder"

As I was watching Terrence Malick's latest film To The Wonder the other night, it occurred to me that, love him or hate, Malick is among the handful of directors, past and present, that has completely infused himself in to every fibre of his films. It's not just that he has a particular style, but that's there not a single moment in this film, or his previous few films, that he's not present. He's there in every image, camera movement, line of dialogue and even performance. Wes Anderson is similar in that regard, and maybe even Stanley Kubrick but I can't think of many directors that have become so much part of their films. I think it's hard to review a Malick film, particularly now, since  his films exist outside any typical narrative structure- so this will be more of a "thoughts on" piece rather than a "good or bad" summary. Overall, I liked the film and maybe even loved it. While it's not as monumental a work as his previous film, The Tree of Life, it's a lovely and often beautiful film, telling a simple but universal film about finding and losing love.

The film tells the story of Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) who meet in France and move to Oklahoma to start their life together. Complications in their relationship leads to Neil and reconnecting with his childhood sweetheart Jane (Rachel McAdams). A parallel storyline focuses on Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a priest struggling with his faith.

Malick tells these stories, as to be expected, through impressionistic imagery and hushed voiceovers. But in this film I found that Malick was moving even further away from dialogue, crafting something focused very much on the physicality and movements of the actors- particularly with Kurylenko and McAdams. I don't think either of these women have ever looked more gorgeous. By just looking at them, watching them move, their beauty really shines through in a pure way.

Journalist and filmmaker Bilge Ebiri wrote a piece interpreting the film as a dance, a ballet. All one has to do is look at Kurylenko and her movements in the film and it becomes clear what Ebiri is talking about and what Malick is trying to achieve. Moreover,  I feel that Malick isn't just trying to create a ballet but he's fascinated in taking actors we recognize and using them in a fashion where their usual stature as an actor is stripped down to something quite simple. Think of Sean Penn in The Tree of Life. In this film, Affleck is just a normal man, not the hero of Argo or complicate bank robber of The Town.

This is the shortest gap between movies for Malick, who's taken up to 20 years between films. While it's exciting to get a new Malick film so soon after The Tree of Life, that film was such a bold and visionary piece of work, a film which could possibly be deemed a landmark film, that To The Wonder seems somewhat anti-climatic in comparison. Even if there was a bigger gap between the films, I didn't sense the level of ambition in this film that was present in The Tree of Life. But one has to take the film as what it is. To The Wonder is not as towering an achievement as some of Malick's other films but it's still a film in which we find Malick striving for pure visual poetry, which I think he achieves.

 Malick has always had a fascination with exploring America's past- the late 1950s that gave birth to one of America's first serial killers, Charles Starkweather, in Badlands, the turn-of-the-century labor in Days of Heaven, the physical an existential conflict soldiers face during WWII in The Thin Red Line, and the founding of the Jamestown, Virginia settlement in 1607 in The New World. He returned to the 1950s in The Tree of Life- an course in that film Malick went beyond just exploring America's past- he literally dramatized the creation of the universe itself. To The Wonder is Malick's first film set entirely in the present day. I may have to see the film again but I didn't feel Malick was too preoccupied with modern day America- the story could've taken place in nearly any time. But then again, Malick's eye always seems to exist outside of time, showing us not the way things actually were in a given time period- but how they exist in the memory or dreams.

I'm still not sure how the Quintana storyline relates to the love triangle. His struggle with his faith reminds us of The Tree of Life, and also Ingmar Bergman, but it didn't feel directly tied to what has happening between Neil, Marina an Jane. 34444444444I've heard that Quintana's story is also a love story- one between him an God. I assume the relationship between Quintana an God is a spiritual relationship that's falling apart much like the physical relationships between Neil and the two women.  I'll have to keep this in mind the next time I see the film.

The way Malick moved the camera in certain scenes reminded me of The Tree of Life- as well as the houses, which brought to mind the O'Brien home. Also, every thing seems bigger through Malick's camera- faces, places, it's a recognizable world but one that seems larger than life.

Those are my initial thoughts on the film. I wasn't as overwhelmed as I was the first time I saw The Tree of Life, but the film, like all of Malick's works, it'll require at least another viewing to completely take every thing in. It'll be interesting to see what To The Wonder's critical standing will be as time goes on, particularly in relation to how it's ranked amongst Malick's other films. The initial reviews have been mixed and maybe the reaction towards the film will always be divided. But for Malick enthusiasts, it's worth seeing and becoming part of Malick's singular world.