Friday, April 26, 2013

Wonder, Wander: TO THE WONDER

To the Wonder is the kind of film that’s so evocative and thought provoking that to say it is about nothing says more about you than about the film. It’s the latest from Terrence Malick, the master poet of cinema. He wields the camera and the editing bay like Whitman or Frost used their pens, sketching beautiful imagery and natural detail to evoke in an instant the deepest of reflections. Unlike his last film, the confident spiritual coming-of-age panorama The Tree of Life, this new film is confident in its hesitance. Here is a film that pushes his style even further, more abstraction and more ellipsis, dialogue slipping further away from the images, narration sparser and rarely less than a kind of pure yearning for an elusive something. Where Tree of Life, through an intensely personal montage of childhood experience, managed to examine existence itself from the dawn of time to an abstract timelessness of a conclusion, To the Wonder is an earthy, specific, and wounded picture about characters shyly, strongly trying and failing to connect with each other and with a sense of a bigger picture. What is Truth? What is Love? What is Wonder?

The Wonder of the title refers to a literal place, the island Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, France, where Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) spend happy hours in the beginning of their romance. We see them nuzzling each other, caressing shoulders, holding hands, relaxed, leaning into each other’s arms. But Wonder can be both awe, a miraculous feeling of surprise and revelation, and pondering, to be filled with curiosity and questioning. These two characters will spend the course of the film wondering towards wonder as the film follows them in and out of love. Neil, in love with this Parisian woman, wishes to move back to the United States with her and so Marina, along with her daughter, follows him there, happy at first, but eventually consumed with a nagging emptiness as their relationship strains.

But we begin in a state of love. The two communicate their love, their infatuation, through touching, through subtle exposures. They chase after each other playfully, entering into a kind of dance with Emmanuel Lubezki’s expressive cinematography that captures landscapes both natural and manmade with a wandering poetic eye, lingering on tall stalks of grass in windswept fields, shallow water on shifting mud as the tide rolls in, tidy lines of colorful packages on aisle after aisle of supermarket shelves, cool fluorescent reflections on a row of laundromat washers. These two people are merely another aspect of these landscapes, their every movement, their very proximity to each other becoming richly evocative of their emotional states.

As they fall out of love, that distance is no longer a dance of playfulness, but rather a hazy mood of stillness and resonant, hesitant serenity. Dissatisfaction sets in with the distance. Proximity often brings argument, muffled dissonance beneath the quietly swirling score. We hear their voices, hers more than his, whispering to us in urgent narration, questioning their place in the world, entering in conversations with their innermost desires and fears, pleading to a God they may or may not find comfort in. Even what Malick captures of their routines gathers metaphoric weight. He tests soil and water near construction sights for underlying problems, trying to keep forward movement from inadvertently destroying those around it. She is often found drifting, twirling, sitting in sparsely furnished rooms (impeccably designed by Jack Fisk) and empty streets, aimless and yearning. There’s a sense that they need more than each other to be happy, but the matter of what that more entails is something with which they wrestle and wonder, together sometimes, but largely alone.

An intriguing comparison to their plight – held in tension between needs both philosophical and physical – is found in an even more sparsely plotted and overtly meditative subplot about a priest (Javier Bardem) who presides over the congregation the characters attend. We follow him as he moves, every step and action controlled, as he moves isolated through a Bressonian collection of visits to the homes and neighborhoods of his most impoverished congregants. We hear his voice on the soundtrack as well, whispering to God for answers even as he’s reaching out to those in pain, which causes him pain. Is this love? It’s a spiritual love and earthly devotion that becomes a burden on the man who takes it as his solemn duty.

To call To the Wonder plotless is only to note how Malick has moved from positioning his poetry of cinema in more conventional containers – his Badlands and Days of Heaven period pieces with genre elements held in place by a mood that was already distinctly his, The Thin Red Line and The New World historical epics, The Tree of Life bildungsromans of both one boy and the world itself – to a film that is ruminative and expressive, finding outward expression of interior feelings its overwhelming feature and intent. I found myself thinking of poet Archibald MacLeish’s line “A poem should not mean / But be.” In its abstraction in pursuit of stronger emotion, To the Wonder does not mean, but is. Detail comes strong and precise – a new flame (Rachel McAdams) during a separation, a child suddenly entering the picture – sitting in focus, then fading, perhaps unexplained, but still felt, into the current of life, in a questioning quest to the purity of awe.

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