Tuesday, April 23, 2013

To the Wonder

TO THE WONDER                B+  
USA  (112 mi)  2012  ‘Scope  d:  Terrence Malick            Official site

Why must a film explain everything? Why must every motivation be spelled out? Aren’t many films fundamentally the same film, with only the specifics changed? Aren’t many of them telling the same story? Seeking perfection, we see what our dreams and hopes might look like. We realize they come as a gift through no power of our own, and if we lose them, isn’t that almost worse than never having had them in the first place? 
—Roger Ebert, final film review Chicago Sun-Times [Roger Ebert]

No one but Terrence Malick makes films like this, and if anyone else but Malick made this film, we’d all be thinking of it as a breakthrough work.  But from this director we expect so much more, as he simply works and operates at a different artistic level than other mortal humans.  Perhaps David Gordon Green early in his career could fill the screen with luminescent, wordless sequences that are equally breathtaking, but his films had dialogue and a more recognizable narrative sweep to them.  This film continues an artistic design originating with 2011 Top Ten Films of the Year #1 The Tree of Life (2011), filling the screen with a blitzkrieg of non-narrative, abstract images underlined by gloriously chosen classical music, while at the same time asking the transcendental questions that search for life’s meaning.  Not everyone responds to this kind of personalized, philosophic inquiry, some rejecting it out of hand for not telling a recognizable story, others finding it interesting to a degree, but overly pretentious and too arty, while still others would like to appreciate it, but get lost in the ever elusive grandiosity of the filmmaking.  Suffice it to say, while it’s a more simplistic film, this *is* the film Malick intended to make, despite feeling at times like an offshoot of his previous film, perhaps a smaller and more perfectly concise work, as it’s largely an agonizing and soul searching stare into the existential void, asking whether or not love exists?  Unlike all his other films except for brief moments in The Tree of Life, this is Malick’s first contemporary film, contrasting the immensity of the natural world around us with the tiny, claustrophobic space we actually inhabit, even featuring a Sonic Drive-in and an Econo Lodge, living lives of routine, literally walking the very same steps each day.  Malick always loves to show an overpowering presence that exists both in the beauty of nature and in the unseen forces of either God or the mysteries of the universe, where each of us must find our way.  While other films have transcendent moments, this entire film is about that transcendence, wondering if love can sustain the crush of human disappointment and misery.  Using multiple storylines that are advanced through voiceover narration, the film opens with the maternal love of a mother for her child, a kind of universal expression of the permanence of love that exists throughout all cultures and societies, much like the all encompassing love of the Blessed Virgin Mary or Holy Mother in Christian theology.     

While the entire story is told with a near wordless expression, Marina (Olga Kurylenko) is a Ukrainian divorcée raising her 10-year old daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) in Paris, which is where she meets a traveling American, Neil (Ben Affleck).  They fall in love while basking in the glow of Mont-Saint-Michel, an abbey rising out of the sea, like an apparition, on a rocky tidal island just off the Normandy coast.  It is this Edenesque perfection, where the buildings on the northern side are known as “La Merveille,” the French word for “the Wonder,” that gives the film its title.  He invites them to come live with him in his Oklahoma home where Neil works as an environmental inspector, finding poisonous traces in the soil located close to local industry, where the poorest residents continue to live in close proximity.  Though Neil lives in a boxed house with a boundary dividing fence located in a subdivision of tract housing, the two are initially excited to be there, continuously seen dancing and almost floating through air, where both Marina and Tatiana seem to adore the taciturn Neil, who barely utters a word throughout the entire film, and often his head is not even in the picture.  In a Tarkovsky film, expect an absent father and a loving, over-affectionate mother, while in a Malick film the father is present, but silent and uncommunicative, usually angry or frustrated by the stifling effects of the relationship, while the mother is again the nurturing provider.  Kurylenko is lovely and quite charming, a free spirit balancing her time and affection with her daughter and Neil, but she grows impatient when Neil is unable to express his feelings or hold any longterm interest, and seems content to leave her hanging, even as Marina’s visa is about to expire.  When they have fights, Tatiana quickly loses interest in Neil, or any man who disrespects her mother, so they quietly exit the country, leaving the house an empty shell of what it once was, one of the truly sad moments of the film.  On a similar tract, Javier Bardem plays Father Quintana, most likely a stand-in for the director, a Catholic priest undergoing a crisis of faith, where he finds it hard to feel the presence of God’s spirit with such troubled parishioners, preaching to a more than half-empty church, catering to the most poor and dispossessed, while also making visits to those serving prison sentences, one of the more chilling sequences in the film, but certainly an eloquent expression of how utterly lost and alone certain individuals can become. 

Neil rekindles his lost love with Jane (Rachel McAdams), a childhood sweetheart, now a divorced rancher who acknowledges she lost a child and is looking to fill that void.  Again, her needs outweigh his, as in each segment the women are the aggressors, and the camera finds them both in resplendent beauty, where it’s hard to understand what’s holding him back.  One of the best transition shots is a moment of intimacy followed by Jane in a bright red dress running through the wheat fields, where the red color just takes one’s breath away.  But when he receives word that Marina is unhappy in Paris, that Tatiana is living with her father and she’s now alone, he mysteriously agrees to marry her, perhaps to offer her legal resident status, where the church witnesses are, humorously enough, prison inmates wearing their uniforms, like something you’d see in a Coen brothers movie.  But she’s suffocating being locked up in the house all day with nothing to do, where the two of them are miserable together, often seen bitterly furious.  An unfamiliarly strange and unusual sequence shows an Italian girlfriend (Romina Mondello) calling herself a gypsy urging Marina to run away with her, as this two-bit town is dead and has nothing to offer, screaming for all to hear, but instead Marina allows herself to be lured into a cheap affair with a local guy, where the motel room is just a smaller box than the house, where the sense of confinement is overwhelming, as is her sense of disorientation afterwards.  This is a film of only fleeting moments of happiness, where Kurylenko and McAdams are archetypal women shown with sun-drenched faces, where their beauty and sensuality are aglow in the light, but by the end the light goes out in the world and humans appear lost without it.  The crisis of faith shows itself throughout in both Affleck and Bardem, afflicted spirits in the modern world, where with a priest it’s the absence of faith, seen in a religious context, unable to find hope in the wretched lives of the rural poor, as how does one preach divine forgiveness for those dying of industrial poisoning?  But to his credit, the priest keeps searching.  With Affleck, what’s missing is the ability to place any trust or faith in love, as he continually squanders his opportunities, usually appearing small and petty and unforgiving, where all around him are spectacular images of beauty, as Malick shows him the way and the light, but he remains an empty vessel living in an existential wasteland, a prisoner of his own human ineptitude. 

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