For people who may have been baffled by the dinosaurs in Terrence Malick's The Tree Of Life, it may be a relief to hear that in his latest, To The Wonder, there's no such opaque sequence. There's nothing to "get," and there's nothing nearly so disorienting as all the business with the people on the beach, let alone all the business with the world being born.
Here, there's actually a story that's not terribly hard to follow: Marina (Olga Kurylenko) lives in Paris with her daughter Tatiana. She meets an American named Neil (Ben Affleck), with whom she falls into a passionate affair. Neil brings Marina and Tatiana home to America, where the relationship falters. He reconnects with another woman he once knew (Rachel McAdams), and the various relationships struggle. There's also a local priest (Javier Bardem) wandering around questioning his faith. His role is a bit harder to pin down, but he is much less inaccessible than the dinosaurs.
As with The Tree Of Life, the story is almost beside the point, because really, you are there to watch Malick meditate on the natural environment, the human form, and the larger questions of where these people fit into something much larger than themselves. Emmanuel Lubezki is again responsible for the gorgeous cinematography, which produces some genuinely breathtaking shots of water, buffalo, silt, and — inevitably — the sky, the sky, the sky.
There's very little dialogue. Very little. The great majority of what you will hear, other than the score, is Marina whispering voice-overs in French, although the priest sometimes whispers voice-overs in Spanish. Rumors that have circulated that Affleck barely speaks are entirely true — I've heard "ten lines," but while I didn't count, I think that's a substantial overestimation; I don't think it's nearly that much. McAdams speaks a tiny bit, although she's only on screen for a few minutes in the middle of the picture.
That the film contains some of the most beautiful imagery I've seen at the festival is not even debatable. Unfortunately, neither is the fact that it is in other respects insufferable. Over and over, we watch Marina dance around — on one occasion with a rooster, which is supposed to be part of her vivacious personality and is not played for comedy in the slightest, but which I admit made me laugh precisely with its self-seriousness. There's more twirling than at a baton expo.
There's great beauty here, and obviously there is meant to be a profound reflection — perhaps superprofound, ultraprofound, some level of profundity to which others can only aspire — on longing, on love, on closeness. But the film's various devices, particularly all the heavy whispering, ultimately feel like they are begging for attention not for the story, but for the film. They are not there to provoke thought on the film's themes, but to underscore how much you are meant to admire the film itself, its importance and beauty. It's the difference between a good-looking person who walks up to you and smiles and a good-looking person who walks up to you and points in a nearby mirror to his own reflection.
People will call this a tone poem, as they did with The Tree Of Life, and it's certainly true that it's madly experimental as to form, compared to ... well, anything you will see in your multiplex. I'm glad Malick is out there making the stuff he makes, and for people who wait on the edge of their seats simply to see his camera sweep across a field, he delivers. What I resist is the idea that this is necessarily a kind of filmmaking that appeals to something higher in people than other films do; it simply appeals to something different.
There's nothing to "get." There really isn't. It's a story about a troubled relationship that, for me, ultimately chokes on its own self-conscious flourishes. But it's gorgeous, and it's ambitious, and it's certainly easier to follow than The Tree Of Life from a narrative perspective.
To The Wonder does not yet have a U.S. release date.