“To the Wonder”
Watching Terrence Malick’s latest lyric rhapsody To the Wonder, I longed to be reading the Mad Magazine parody version–To the Wonder Bread, maybe, or To the Wonderbra. Specifically, I wanted those square-shaped word balloons to appear over the characters’ heads and cut through all the aimless, dopey solemnity: “Gosh, Morona, you sure do like to pirouette!” “I’m not pirouetting, Nil, I’m looking around FOR THE SCREENWRITER!”
As several others have pointed out, To the Wonder is pretty much a parody of itself, so stuffed is it with worn-out Malickian tropes: setting suns, waving grains, frolicking maidens, whispery voiceovers. The difference this time is that there’s next to nothing holding the tropes together. I didn’t think it was possible to get more highflown than The Tree of Life, but To the Wonder is so indulgently ethereal, so thoroughly divorced from actual human experience, that it barely seems set on planet earth.
Here’s what we’ve got for a story: an American named Neil (Ben Affleck) goes to France and falls in love with a beautiful, gamboling lass named Marina (Olga Kurylenko). They wander the picturesque island of Mont Saint-Michel for a bit–Marina laughing and twirling, Neil looking on awestruck–then Neil takes Marina and her 10-year-old daughter (Tatiana Chahine) back to his small Oklahoma suburb, where whole new opportunities for cavorting await: fields, pastures, cute cul-de-sacs, churchyards. After another half hour or so of manic flitting, Marina runs out of things to exult in and becomes sad, causing Neil to take refuge in another beautiful woman prone to cavorting (Rachel McAdams). Somewhere nearby, a priest (Javier Bardem) wanders alone, musing about God and the nature of love. Aaand… scene.
If you’ve seen Malick’s previous pictures, you know he’s never been particularly big on dialogue–human interaction being presumably too mundane, too earthbound for him. But here he finally rids himself of it entirely. Except for one or two semi-audible utterances from Affleck, the soundtrack is all classical music and “poetic” narration from Marina and the priest, both of whom say things like: “What is this love that loves us?” and “Newborn, I open my eyes, I melt into the eternal night.” I’m only guessing, but I think a portion of the audience could tolerate this stuff in the Tree of Life because it came from the mouth of an 11-year-old boy; his youth and innocence made it forgivable. Coming from the mouths of Kurylenko and Bardem, it’s revealed for what it is: unwiped drool.
As usual, director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki makes every shot gleam and sing, but to what end? What matter pretty images when they’re in the service of mush-brained material? If you ask me, Malick gives feeling and emotion a bad name. His conception of adult romance as one long, epic swoon isn’t just precious, it’s downright false–sixth-graders have more sophisticated attitudes. And his depiction of women–as twinkling sprites who want nothing but love, who are always helplessly swept away by their own emotions–is kinda outmoded, to put it mildly. If Marina were just a wee bit more grounded, we might still have felt something when her romance with Neil goes south. As it is, we have no idea what their relationship consists of, and Affleck, for his part, doesn’t seem to either. He mostly just stands around looking sheepish while Kurylenko uses him as a maypole.
When I saw To the Wonder at TIFF last September, I felt sure Malick’s admirers would finally have to concede he’d exhausted his bag of tricks. Instead, they’re coming up with new ways to excuse his faults. New York Magazine critic Bilge Ebiri, a writer whom I respect, argues on his blog that Marina’s constant twirling proves that To the Wonder is more a piece of music than a film: “The fact is, the performers in To the Wonder are not acting; they’re dancing. I don’t mean that metaphorically, either. They are almost literally dancing. The movie is, for all intents and purposes, a ballet.”
To which I would respond: okay, sure, it’s a ballet–a terrible, terrible ballet. What does it matter how it’s classified if it’s gooey from first frame to last? In any case, I lean more toward the greeting-card analogy. Throughout, I kept mentally freezing the images and superimposing the narration on them in cursive script, and the result was always the same: one of those icky, vaguely non-denominational cards you find in bulk next to the discount scented candles.
I’m pretty much flummoxed that so many smart people continue to defend Malick. If, as Ebiri insists, To the Wonder is a dance piece, I guess you need to be one of those people who can tune out awful, simpering lyrics and focus solely on the music. Must be almost nice.