Symphony of Sorrowful Songs
Michael Koresky on To the Wonder
All is constantly new in a Terrence Malick film. Upon my initial viewing of each of Malick’s features from the past decade, I have felt like the protagonist of his To the Wonder, Marina, whose first line is “Newborn. I open my eyes.” In The New World, The Tree of Life, and now To the Wonder, I have been immediately thrust into unprecedented realms. To the Wonder confirms that it has never been what is in front of the camera that is extraordinary, but rather how the familiar is presented. Minus the grand narrative or thematic hooks of his recent work (World War II in The Thin Red Line; American history and myth in The New World; the creation of the universe in The Tree of Life), To the Wonder nevertheless feels as momentous as them—simply by being, by watching, by moving and cutting and floating and wandering it makes an alien space of our world. And as is always true, we cannot make sense of this world unless we are privileged to take on another’s perspective of it. One could say this is Malick’s philosophical project. In this sense, his cinema is a grand empathetic gesture.
Malick’s output has been so prodigious in the last ten years that it’s hard to believe this famously reclusive director had disappeared from cinema for twenty years prior to his 1998 reemergence with The Thin Red Line. We assumed he’d be gone for another two decades. He was once a myth, and many seem to have preferred him that way—with hallowed artists, absence is easier to confront than presence. He’s now a constant in our film culture, a searching, grasping, wrestling artist. Malick has grown youthful, as vital as any of the narrative filmmakers who have been tagged here or there as “visionary,” directors of such varied caliber as Paul Thomas Anderson, Sofia Coppola, Spike Jonze, Harmony Korine, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, or Lucrecia Martel. The more one is faced with his films, the more one is given the ability to reduce him to a certain set of concerns and criteria. Hence To the Wonder has received a great deal of negative criticism, most of it saying in one way or another that it is more of the same. This is not a surprise. Malick is the rare rarefied artist whose aesthetic mannerisms have become so widely recognizable as to have entered the mainstream vocabulary, a blessing and a curse. The term “Malickian” instantly conjures a specific set of images. It makes the lazy critic’s job much easier: identifying the familiar, as though making up a checklist, is much simpler than reckoning with those aspects that are unfamiliar and strange. And To the Wonder is filled with the sorts of mysteries that not only make Malick’s work indefinably captivating but also instill awe and hope for the future of a medium supposedly in its death throes.
This is ground zero for cinema as living, breathing, evolving thing. I was constantly surprised and elated by this disorienting and obfuscatory yet emotionally direct film, which achieves something like mysticism without explicitly making it its subject. For the sake of playing to his critics, and of getting niggling matters out of the way, let’s check off Malick’s apparent sins of repetition here, i.e, the images and sounds that for some too easily resemble those we’ve seen in his other films: women prancing and twirling in fields, effulgent vast skies, countless inserts of locations shot at “magic hour,” sparsely decorated rooms flooded with natural light, wall-to-wall voiceover speaking abstractly and generally to credence and skepticism rather than narrative specifics—let’s add trees, grass, birds, whatever rankles. One shouldn’t have to defend an artist’s decision to return to the same motifs time and again. (Did Monet’s contemporaries gripe about his preoccupation with haystacks?) If one steps back from narrative preconceptions and tries to meet Malick on a purely visual, visceral level, it becomes clear that the director is using his raw materials—those oft-repeated glimpses of nature and snatches of awestruck narration—for rhythmic and emotional more than literal cause-and-effect purposes. To the Wonder is a supremely musical film, as much as The Tree of Life was—but without that film’s guttural, chambered bursts and more clearly compartmentalized movements and crescendos. To the Wonder is more like a lightly trilling opus that glides and glissandos on waves only made clearer to the viewer upon multiple viewings. It’s also important to note that the highly musical structure of Malick’s later films is largely possible through the use of digital editing; the director’s idiosyncratic methods on the set—forcing improvisation and creating physical spaces with the actors rather than eliciting conventional performances—result in untold hours of footage. From this, Malick and a host of editors cull something like a narrative, but more like a series of nature ballets. Like the name of the aching Henryk Górecki piece that figures prominently on the soundtrack, To the Wonder is a symphony of sorrowful songs.
The other Malick film it most feels like is The New World, in that it is largely narrated by and seen through the eyes of a dislocated, disoriented woman (this in itself is such a major thematic and perspective change from The Tree of Life that to call it leftovers of that prior film, as some have, is a wrongheaded and willful misreading). In this case it is Marina (Olga Kurylenko), an angelic young Ukrainian living with her ten-year-old daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), in Paris, where she meets the taciturn Neil (Ben Affleck), who sweeps her off her feet and brings her, along with Tatiana, back to his Oklahoma town. Though in outline a story of the existential effects of physical relocation, To the Wonder overturns expectations and refuses to conform to a common American narrative of an individual’s awakening amidst a stultifying suburbia. As an artist, Malick is far too generous and genuinely astonished by the world’s many amazements to fall into such politicized traps. Rather than setting out to make a predetermined point about the terrain he has chosen to use as his backdrop, he seems to be discovering the world anew right along with Marina; this is a searching, selfless filmmaker, imagining the point of view of a good-hearted, soulful, and terribly solitary woman. In this way, To the Wonder is like the more elegiac second half of The New World—everything following Q’orianka Kilcher’s marriage to the laconic yet loving husband played by Christian Bale—stretched to feature length, a fish-out-of-water tale that finds beauty and harmony in disruption and estrangement.
Comparisons to his other work established, let’s now enumerate all of the things that Malick is doing in To the Wonder that struck me as unique in his oeuvre: a reckoning with the texture of contemporary American living from an outsider’s point of view; the easy incorporation of real people (i.e. nonactors from the towns of Bartlesville and Pawhuska, Oklahoma, where the film was shot) into the otherwise aestheticized whole, giving the film the occasional feel of being hybridized between fiction and documentary; a direct addressing of its characters’ specifically Christian faith rather than a vague outline of a nondenominational spirituality; a nonstop rush of images that transforms what is basically a simple character piece into a work of radical montage; and an almost complete disavowal of synced, spoken dialogue in favor of voice-over. His earlier films may have noticeably been leading towards this, yet none of them are quite as unconventional, as internalized and fragmented.
The most instantly noticeable break from Malick’s aesthetic tradition comes at the very outset. The film’s first images are low-grade video of the European countryside whipping by a train’s window; these blurry, pixellated shots are, as we soon ascertain from a reflection on a subway window, taken from an iPhone. Not merely indicative of a filmmaker—whose only previous format has been 35mm film—wanting to experiment with new material, these opening moments affix the film in an intimate realm, a reminder that the filmic image is always subjective and personalized. It’s the smallest a Malick film has ever been, and especially striking coming so soon after the monumentalism of The Tree of Life, and it gives the film the feel of a curio, something that can be kept in the breast pocket and close to the heart. Also the low-fi video’s naturally degraded qualities temporarily veer away from the bright-line beauty that makes up so much of his cinema—the sense of the camera beaming at the natural world, curving toward its unadulterated glories.
The opening section, all forward momentum, functions as a romantic idyll that kickstarts the rest of the film. Marina and Neil are swept up—in each other, in Paris, in being. They are explorers of unfamiliar terrain; the thrill of falling in love is inseparable from the thrill of sightseeing, and, as the film reveals, both are necessarily ephemeral. The images wash over us—a deluge of tentative joy, infused with a dose of mystery: glides through public parks and visits to hushed cloisters, blooming gardens and medieval tapestries by candlelight. Romance intermingles with the religious, both inscrutable but ever-present. From the backseat of a convertible, we see them driving through Paris at night, and Malick then cuts to the same image and angle, this time on a highway in the French countryside in overcast daylight, with what looks like a circular, storybook castle beckoning far away to the left of the road. Soon the two are wandering through a gloomy stone cathedral; the airy yet insistent symphonic piece propelling the sequence—appropriately, the second movement to Hector Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, titled “March of the Pilgrims”—has faded out, and we hear natural, interior sounds: echoes, footsteps, water dripping. Marina, as always in voice over, says, “We climbed the steps…. to the Wonder.”
The Wonder is a literal, rather than strictly mythopoetic place. Though it’s never stated in the film, they have journeyed to the northwestern coast’s rocky tidal island of Mont Saint-Michel, on which a medieval church, indomitable despite centuries of erosion, is perched like Bruegel’s Tower of Babel. Surrounded by remarkably spongy-looking mudflats and encroaching tides, this World Heritage site is an oft-dubbed “wonder” of the Western world. As with so many of the film’s cryptic locations, Malick offers it in shards, so that we get fleeting glimpses rather than devotional concentration—perhaps so as not to prioritize one place over another. We see a splendidly wintry church garden in which roses brightly bloom despite the frost; hands just barely touching one another; water dripping and streaming through grooves in the surrounding mud, as though in a honeycomb. Thus far the film cascades rather than unspools. The rush continues, even as we, and Marina, get a drastic change of scenery. The decision for Marina and Tatiana to follow Neil back to Oklahoma is accomplished in three quick, associative shots: after Emmanuel Lubezki’s always roving camera captures a miniature Statue of Liberty replica beckoning in a Parisian park, the film cuts to a brief flash of the mud surrounding Mont Saint-Michel, and then instantly, wordlessly, to a vast Oklahoma sky dotted with phone lines.
Malick doesn’t locate unexpected beauty in his chosen heartland locale in the manner of his many aggressive imitators, like Benh Zeitlin in Beasts of the Southern Wild, which forces its bayou “bathtub” to conform to a predetermined, whimsical narrative. Malick seems to be uncovering the strangeness of this world as Marina is and as we are. There’s a sense, as in much of Malick’s work, that the gorgeous sunsets we’re staring at are staring right back at us. There is a lack of clear tonal boundaries in the way Malick presents the vistas of middle America and the sacred corners of Mont Saint-Michel—marking the world of To the Wonder as a wholly secular one. That the film’s community is deeply Christian is apparent in the behavior of its citizens, in both their hospitality and skepticism. There’s a lovely moment—caught like so many of the director’s scenes, like blink-and-miss-them events—not long after Marina has first moved to town in which a friendly neighbor, spraying her lawn with a hose, welcomes her and offhandedly invites Tatiana to play with her daughter. Here, Tchaikovsky’s delicate minor-key solo piano piece “Barcarolle (June)” underlines the simultaneous gentility and disaffection Marina experiences—the result is overwhelmingly poignant in its simplicity. Marina will indeed go on to feel acute alienation in this environment, but this is rendered as an existential inevitability, not as a result of community rejection or any sort of other telegraphed behavior that less imaginative, humane filmmakers would indulge in.
Marina intones that this is “a land so calm, honest,” as she experiences her first small-town American parade. Meanwhile, Tatiana is impressed by the local supermarket, twirling down its miles of aisles dotted with brightly colored products: “Look how clean everything is . . . everything is beautiful here.” Her ecstasy is not meant to be seen as false, or, as a viewer might be trained to think, the result of an indoctrination into the American consumer culture. Rather it is a genuine expression of astonishment and culture clash, which forces us to look anew at the familiar. In this sense, the film is a constant reckoning with our preconceptions as viewers (its beguiling audacity is that it asks us to locate the wonder).
In one of many unexpected moves, Malick temporarily unmoors us from our point of view halfway through. Spurred on by Tatiana’s homesickness, Marina lets her visa expire and abruptly packs and leaves with her daughter. A thick blanket of winter falls, and suddenly our perspective shifts. Neil is now quietly courting a woman of even sadder strength, Jane (Rachel McAdams). Marina’s voiceover, addressing Neil as if in a letter, tells us she is “someone you’d known in your youth,” but we learn nothing more about their shared past. The present is all that matters. McAdams’s wide-open, bright-eyed, and big-toothed earnestness invests Jane with a great deal of pathos and makes her a stunning visual and emotional counterpoint to the internal Marina. Unlike her, whose back story comes out in drips throughout the narrative, Jane, concentrated to this one discrete section of the film, is presented to us all at once. She lives and works on a ranch in decline, and she is still mourning the loss of a child. Like Marina she is a Christian who struggles with doubt. In her grief, she tells Neil, her father said to read Romans (“all things work together for good for those who love God”), but the tenor of her voice expresses incertitude, or at least a lack of resolution. Malick gives this detour much emotional weight, compartmentalizing Neil’s brief but meaningful fling with Jane as a miniature film unto itself, with its own swelling musical and visual motifs. Their intimacy attains an unmistakable glory, as if such moments of human connection, however fleeting, are earthly representations of the divine.
In To the Wonder, it’s simply a given that characters are religious; its portrait of America is, rightly, as a place marked by profound devotion. Marina and Jane are clearly products of a spiritual upbringing and thus see the sacred—and its possible sullying—everywhere; Neil is more of a question mark. As a result of decisions made during the attenuated and unorthodox editing of the film, Affleck barely has any dialogue or narration. The fact that we rarely hear his voice at all is undeniably an aesthetic choice, and a smart one, even if it risks upsetting viewers who prefer that our actors be handled in traditionally idolizing ways. Affleck is seemingly here used for his visual blankness, rather than his more fatal shortcomings as an actor, namely that scratchy voice and rushed way of speaking that swallows the ends of sentences. The effective result of all this is that his character remains as much a mystery to us as he does to these two women (“You spoke little, but you were an incredibly loving man,” Marina says in voiceover, early into their union; later: “I know that strong feelings make you uneasy”). Even his emotional relationship to his job is left vague, though it seems to take a toll on his spirit; an environmental inspector looking for toxins after a smelting operation in town has polluted the soil, Neil is at odds with the locals, who would rather not have their land be uprooted by his search.
The film’s other major figure, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), is its most explicit embodiment of faith—the beauty of its uncertainties. We first meet him giving a sermon about love, for both spouse and church; the quiet righteousness of his words is countered by the remoteness of his expression. An older woman in his parish notices his sadness, tells him that she prays for him “to receive the gift of joy.” We stand by Quintana’s side as he visits the homes of the poor, the sick, the dying, the disabled, and the elderly. The way Malick’s camera captures these interactions with Oklahoma locals is extraordinary; each shot is like an embrace, and there’s nary a whiff of condescension. (Despite the film’s telegraphed separation between its “pretty” movie stars and its “average” commonfolk, there’s no appreciable hierarchy of beauty—much like its refusal of separation between locales, Malick allows any such judgments to derive from the biases of his viewers.) To these people, Quintana tries to bring sustenance and hope, but, as we learn from Bardem’s voiceover, spoken in Spanish, he is hobbled by his own seeking for an answer from an ever-silent God, always present and absent. As much an outsider as Marina, Quintana is a foreigner living in an unfamiliar land that’s both sublime and lonely, dwarfed by an immense sky that stretches over everything with an ominous grandeur.
Quintana is the one to whom Marina speaks of her past: she was married at seventeen (to Tatiana’s father), and thus in the church’s eyes, she is still and will always be married to him. Like so much of the film’s major points, this is only mentioned once, and in passing, but it hangs over Marina’s every action; her relationship with Neil is one burdened by her religious guilt. Upon her return to Neil (this time without Tatiana, who remains with her father in Europe), Marina marries him, in a sober town-hall ceremony witnessed only by local prisoners. The remaining forty-five minutes of the film chart a second round of things falling apart, and they fall apart more intensely this time; she is beset by more profound disillusion, driving her to engage in adultery in an Econo Lodge. Perhaps too often Malick tells rather than shows in the build-up to this betrayal (“How had hate come to replace love?” Marina asks, over images of pouting in restaurants and pools—we might ask the same). But the act, committed with a handyman (Charles Baker) who shows her a lot of the attention she craves and is not receiving in her marriage, is portrayed with a humane, if terrifying, gravity. For the now remarried Marina, this is a sin of incomprehensible proportions, and it signals the end of their relationship; while it happens, a skull tattoo on her lover’s chest stares back at her, unforgivingly.
To the Wonder has an emotional, approaching-subliminal climax, which brings together Neil, Quintana, and the community itself; this is followed by an epilogue of sorts reminiscent of Wong Kar-wai’s conclusion to In the Mood for Love, in the way that it locates a physical holy structure (in that film Angkor Wat, in this case Mont Saint-Michel) as a repository for all of its mysteries, while giving us only the barest hint of where its characters may have ended up. It suggests that the film is less interested in the literal details of this relationship than in the incorporeal substance of love itself. Considering the diaphanous texture and spiritual nature of Malick’s artistry here, Marina and Neal and Jane might as well be infinite beings.
This is a film of expressive lightness, of bodies in motion, almost a dance piece. Malick’s movies are not preoccupied with the behavorial, interested less in the nuances of recognizable everyday living than in divining an ethereal expression of that living. American cinema isn’t used to so extended, so musical, a depiction of the nonmaterial. It’s a feat that not just any artist could pull off, but only one so fully and genuinely attuned to the intangibles that float around us at all times. “Flood our souls with your spirit and your life,” beseeches Father Quintana near the end of To the Wonder; for two hours, Malick has done just this.