September 2, 2012 at 10:01 am #68728
As anticipated, Terence Malick’s new film underwhelmed in its Venice premiere, with some fans apparently but the majority either muted or negative. The two trade reviews have come out – Variety mixed, Hollywood Reporter negative (I think Todd McCarthy called it turgid or similar). It has no distributor yet, though obviously it will. I wouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t come out here until next year, and then will likely perform far below the mediocre grosses for The Tree of Life.
.September 2, 2012 at 10:41 am #68730
Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian gives it 4/5:
To the Wonder – review
Terrence Malick’s bold and beautiful companion piece to The Tree of Life is unfashionably concerned with love and God
Olga Kurylenko, who plays Marina in To the Wonder, at the Venice film festival, where the movie was booed. Photograph: Max Rossi/Reuters
- To the Wonder
- Production year: 2012
- Country: USA
- Runtime: 112 mins
- Directors: Terrence Malick
- Cast: Ben Affleck, Javier Bardem, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams
Just two years after The Tree of Life – hardly more than an eye-blink in terms of his usual production-rate – Terrence Malick has returned with something which could be seen as a B-side or companion piece to that film. It is a bold and often beautiful movie, unfashionably and unironically concerned with love and God, and what will happen to us in the absence of either. To the Wonder does not quite have the mad and magnificent ambition of The Tree of Life, nor a male performance to match Brad Pitt’s in that picture. Malick’s visual language is much in evidence: whispered narrative, a surging orchestral score, looming, circling camerawork to accompany wordless outdoor memory sequences which often take place suffused in sunsets and lens flare. (At one stage, a character actually says: “The sun is right in my eyes.”) And yes, it is sometimes over-familiar and on occasions comes close to self-parody.
Malick goes unhesitatingly out on a limb and the branch creaks a bit. When To the Wonder ended, there was the now traditional storm of hissing and booing at the Venice film festival. Malick gets this treatment, while the most insipid, unadventurous movies here can fade to black and roll credits in respectful quiet. I can only say that I responded to its passion and idealism.
It is the story of a love affair doomed to failure, or at any rate doomed never quite to succeed. Ben Affleck is Neil, a stolid, handsome American engineer who has a passionate relationship in Paris with Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a sensual free spirit. Their love achieves an almost ecstatic state of happiness when they visit Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy and are all but overwhelmed by its islanded beauty. (“We climbed the steps to the wonder,” recalls Marina.) Easy-going, good-natured Neil gets on just fine with Marina’s 10-year-old daughter from a previous relationship and offers to bring them over to live with him in picket-fence middle America. But transplanted to the US, their relationship begins to go wrong and Neil becomes aware of a childhood friend, Jane (Rachel McAdams). In parallel with this, there is a priest, Father Quintana, played by Javier Bardem, whose consciousness begins to guide the movie in its American phase, and whose crisis of faith colours how we see the painful trial of Neil and Marina’s happiness.
The locals don’t know quite how to take Marina, but it is specifically Neil’s work that brings him into conflict with the community. He appears to be investigating soil subsidence and problems with the water table in the surrounding neighbourhood, issues that might affect the viability of the whole district. People nearby tell him he is making them nervous; one says that even the dog is behaving strangely. Despite the vivid gorgeousness that Malick discovers everywhere, there is a fundamental problem with the American soil itself – a real crisis of faith – and Neil and Marina’s existence is wilting. Malick may intend a visual rhyme with the earlier sequence at Mont Saint-Michel, in which the couple were running around in the squelching mud which seemed to ripple and bounce under their feet. There, the effect was playful and sensual, now the soil’s treachery is disturbing.
Marina’s visa can’t last for ever; a decision about marriage can’t be delayed as they both begin to doubt if America is really for them, and here is where Jane enters the story and Malick conjures a sublime sequence in which a kind of alternative-reality love affair is played out. Would a monogamous commitment be an affirmation of trust in God and in the mysterious beauty of life, which would generate its own success – or just be a terrible mistake?
At its best, Malick’s cinematic rhapsody is glorious; during his uncertain moments, he appears to be repeating himself. But what delight there is in this film.September 2, 2012 at 10:43 am #68731
Guy Lodge of In Contention gives it a ‘B+’:
Review: ‘To the Wonder’ is Terrence Malick’s typically enchanted Tree of Love
Heartfelt song to personal and spiritual intimacy proves predictably divisive
By Guy Lodge Sunday, Sep 2, 2012 10:16 AM
- Critic’s Rating B+
- Readers’ Rating n/a
Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams in “To the Wonder.”
Credit: FilmNation Entertainment
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VENICE — Stop the presses: There’s been booing at a screening of the new Terrence Malick film. Whether they came from the same small-but-loud faction of supposed journalists who vocally expressed their displeasure at “The Tree of Life” in Cannes last year, or a fresh batch of doubters, such jeers are unusual for films that feature no purported moral transgressions, nor any sheer ineptitude of craft. (Films aren’t booed at festivals simply for being bad, you know: a year ago, Madonna’s “W.E.” heard not a one.)
Rather, Malick is one of the few senior A-list filmmakers who can get razzed in this fashion for being too sincere, too lyrical, too himself. And he is all of those things, to both bewitching and bemusing effect, in “To the Wonder,” a follow-up to “The Tree of Life” in more senses than mere proximity. With not even 16 months separating their premieres, they are by far the nearest-born works in a filmography otherwise thick with white space, underlining the impression of two sister films: both iridescently pictorial, ambiguously self-focused and inclined to lure critics into terms they should normally feel self-conscious about using. “Tone poem.” “Meditation.” “Elegy.” “Prayer.” Ghastly words when abused, the lot of them. Malick’s cinema somehow wears them well.
So why, given this tonal and textual consistency, did I feel admiringly detached from “The Tree of Life,” finding its explosion of formal beauty a discontinuous front for its unnourished human expressions, but far more stimulated and moved by his latest? “To the Wonder” is structurally a more modest, more linear film than “Tree” — no dinosaurs here, folks, though fans of sea turtles should prick up their ears — but it’s no less vulnerable to charges of excessive preciosity, particularly from those whose secularity applies to churches beyond the House of Malick.
Though not evangelical, “Tree” was unapologetically steeped in the director’s Christianity, its hushed negotiation of nature and grace culminating in a rapt celebration of the afterlife. The more earthbound “Wonder” isn’t as fixated on such unknowables, but it’s no less faith-based, and not just in the secondary presence of Javier Bardem as a Catholic priest struggling to bring comfort to an economically famished Oklahoman community.
Its lean primary narrative, too, amounts to an investigation of sin, forgiveness and devotion in the domestic space, as Midwest engineer Neil (Ben Affleck) and his French lover Marina (Olga Kurylenko) struggle to build a moral foundation for their relationship, and subsequent marriage, on the unwelcoming, wind-blown plains of his home turf. (The “Wonder” of the title is the French island of Mont St. Michel, where the couple are shown frolicking in halcyon days.) At different stages of the protracted breakup, both fall prey to other people’s arms: Marina, fleetingly, with a street acquaintance at an Econo Lodge; Neil, with more lasting and troubling impact, to former high-school flame Jane (Rachel McAdams).
Seemingly inspired by the dissolution of the director’s own second marriage in the 1980s, the story forms a less far-reaching basis for spiritual investigation than its predecessor’s classical, era-hopping war between father and son, but there’s dramatic satisfaction in watching these otherwise opaque characters emerge through their tussles with more contained moral decisions and consequences: it’s the rare film that feels more affecting for the stakes being slightly smaller. Though Malick’s requisite rolling landscapes and infinite bruise-colored skies are still very much present and correct (Emmanuel Lubezki devotees should prepare for, well, the wonder), it’s the director’s most intimate film since 1978’s “Days of Heaven,” as well as his most gaspingly romantic. If the title “Tree of Life” loftily bracketed a branching journey through mortality and beyond, this is his Tree of Love.
“Everything’s so beautiful here!” cries Marina’s pre-teen daughter from a previous liaison, as the makeshift family wheels its way through a cavernous, hard-lit supermarket. The line prompts one of the few laughs ever likely to be heard during a Terrence Malick film, but it’s indicative of the earnest enchantment coursing through “Wonder”‘s veins that he and Lubezki themselves seek to beautify everything in this onscreen environment: the first fully contemporary setting of his career, and one even more grayishly forbidding than that explored in his 1974 debut “Badlands.”
As befits the title, everything is a gaze-demanding spectacle in this simple world, be it minutiae like the shadow-box theater created by a gaudy chandelier in an underlit corridor and the technicolor tangle of real-life tattoos on Affleck’s biceps, or more extravagantly surreal flourishes like the stormy herd of bison closing in on Affleck and Kurylenko as they embrace in a wheaten field. Speaking of which, we hardly need reminding at this point that no one shoots swaying expanses of grass like Malick — and Lubezki’s further virtuosic-yet-specific wizardry here marks a happy extension of their own professional romance. (Chalk up one non-negotiable Oscar nomination for a film that looks unlikely to be garlanded as generously as “The Tree of Life.”)
Like Malick’s customary accompanying swirl of highly recognizable classical scoring — selected composers this time range from Tchaikovsky to Shostakovich to Arvo Part, with young Kiwi-born, Texas-based composer Hanan Townshend doing the bridging work — this super-aestheticized approach is bound to aggravate as many as it enthralls, but in a film dedicated to ideal but elusive forms of love, it feels thematically grounded. Ditto the casting: with their vocal contributions limited to the same strain of hushed, ecstatic voiceover (“I open my eyes… I melt into the eternal light,” and so on) delivered predominantly by Jessica Chastain in “The Tree of Life,” the four stars aren’t performers so much as motifs.
One could wonder why a director as famously indifferent to actors (and commerce) as Malick — Rachel Weisz’s role, incidentally, has been given the old Adrien Brody heave-ho here — continues to hire such big-name actors. (You might think he of all directors would be in favor of non-pro casts.) The combined attractiveness of this star quartet runs the risk of making the film’s least integrated or resonant sequences — those in which Bardem wearily calls on all manner of buck-toothed, poverty-stricken local parishioners — the teeniest bit condescending to boot. Even this faint absurdity, however, seems parcelled up in Malick’s restless, tender, unfashionable quest for beauty in its highest physical and spiritual forms. Never, to crib a line from “A Clockwork Orange,” has a Terrence Malick film felt more like gorgeousness and gorgeousity made fleshSeptember 2, 2012 at 10:49 am #68732
Idiewire’s Oliver Lyttelton is also gives it a very positive review, an ‘A-‘.
VENICE REVIEW: Terrence Malick’s ‘To The Wonder’ Is A Raw And Heartfelt Film Of Loss And Longing…
But hopes of something a little more down to earth for the new film (and this writer has to confess he wasn’t entirely enamored by ‘Tree of Life’) were seemingly quashed this weekend when Ben Affleck, the star of the film, said that it “makes ‘Tree of Life’ look like Transformers.’ There was also an additoinal rumor that, just like Sean Penn or Adrien Brody, he’d essentially been cut out of the picture.
But we have to say, having just seen the film in Venice, we suspect that Affleck was exaggerating a little. “To the Wonder” is unlikely to win over many who’ve sworn off Malick in the past, but it’s certainly one that leans towards traditional narrative a little more than “The Tree of Life.” And to our eyes at least (there was an awful lot of booing as the credits rolled, although booing Malick has become a badge of pride for a certain section of the press corps) it felt like a more coherent, deeply felt and satisfying film than its predecessor, and one of the highlights of the festival so far.
The plot, such as it is, is more or less the one widely reported, and seemingly based, if some are to be believed, on Malick’s own experiences of marriage and divorce. Neil (Affleck), an environmental inspector, and single mother Marina (Olga Kurylenko) meet in Paris, and while he’s a little resistant to commitment, asks her and her 10-year-old daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) to move to Oklahoma with him. They live happily together for a while, but things start to crumble a little when her visa expires and she’s forced to return home for a time. Neil then reconnects with Jane (Rachel McAdams), a childhood friend now divorced and managing a ranch on her own. Somewhere in the mix is Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), Marina’s priest and confidante, who’s suffering from something of a crisis of faith.
As you might imagine given its close proximity to “The Tree of Life,” “To the Wonder” acts as a close cousin to last year’s film. Emmanuel Lubezki’s (typically glorious-looking) cinematography is along much the same lines, if anything taken to more of an extreme, with the fluid Steadicam ever-wandering, ever-searching, and rarely straying more than a few feet from the actors. Despite switching out composers (Hanan Townsend for Alexandre Desplat), the music is along much the similar classical music lines. (However, unless they’re buried in the background somewhere, there was no sign of those reported St. Vincent and Thee Oh Sees tracks either).
And some of the same visual themes are in play too, particularly the interplay of nature and grace, although the intrusion of pre-fab suburbia, along with some positively apocalyptic construction sites that Affleck passes through, gives a little more edge to the landscapes. Indeed, being Malick’s first-ever film set entirely in the present day gives it a pulse and vitality that we’ve found lacking in the last few pictures.
As for early buzz that the film was even less audience-friendly than the last, we’re not so sure. Though Malick plays a little with time, it’s much less of a stream of consciousness: the director might wander off the narrative backbone of the relationship between Neil and Marina a little, but never strays too far away, and the film feels less self-consciously poetic and meandering. This isn’t to say that it’s not indulgent – Malick certainly isn’t in a hurry, and there’s plenty of shots of figures wandering through cornfields, or two people circling around each other. But it also feels like it’s working towards a more coherent theme, and the film somehow feels more satisfying as a result.
For us at least, “To the Wonder” feels like a film about absence, about longing, or “thirsting,” as Javier Bardem’s priest Quintana puts it at one point. Marina longs for her lover, longs for her daughter when she’s away, longs for a reaction from the distant Neil as their relationship becomes strained. Neil, meanwhile, is always looking for something else – a classic grass is greener type, torn between Marina and Jane, loving both, but unable to decide. And Quintana wanders the rougher parts of town, thirsting for a sign that God is listening to him in a world with so little evidence that his Lord exists. They’re all characters with a void in their existence (like Penn in “The Tree of Life”), and it hit us on a gut level.
Because for all of the glorious landscapes and images, it’s also a film of real, searing feeling, but not necessarily in the way you might expect. If one buys into the reports that Neil is something of a surrogate for Malick’s character, it’s rather fascinating the way that the director ultimately focuses on Marina, a generous and unexpected perspective, and one that, without psychoanalyzing the filmmaker too much, seems to be a way of airing his regrets about past actions. It’s also unexpectedly sexy in places. Malick’s always been one of the more sensual filmmakers out there, but there’s a bona-fide eroticism at work in places here.
While some would argue that the actors play second fiddle in a Malick picture (particularly when there’s a risk of them being cut out, as Rachel Weisz, Barry Pepper, Amanda Peet, Michael Sheen and Jessica Chastain all were here – there’s not even a glimpse of any of them), we’ve never found that to be the case, and certainly not here. Affleck, who is front-and-center far more than he suggested in the mostly dialogue free film, has the toughest role: Neil’s a cold figure, not unloving, but not someone terribly easy with intimacy. The actor fades into the background a little early on, but he’s terrific later in the picture, with one near-heartbreaking moment of regret, and one shocking moment of sudden action lingering particularly in the mind.
Former Bond girl Kurylenko, meanwhile, is a revelation, and it’s arguably Marina’s film more than anyone else’s, with “To The Wonder” starting and ending on her. The actress is luminous in the part, though, a somewhat silly, often child-like woman unable to get her lover to meet her halfway (she reminded us of Nora from Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House“, curiously), and her heartbreaking turn should open a lot of doors for her. McAdams has the least to do of the principals, but is wonderfully haunted and sad in her brief appearances, while Bardem, as you’d probably expect, is the stand-out, able to depict the priest’s tumultuous soul simply with the way he walks. There’s also a firecracker cameo by Italian actress Romina Mondello late in the film as a friend of Marina’s.
There’s very, very little dialogue in the film, with much of what is said sometimes buried in the mix or muted altogether. Even so, we might have been tempted to drop much of the narration, which sometimes feels a bit student-poetry, especially as the visuals are normally managing to achieve the same thing. And Malick, and his five (?!) editors, lose the thread a little as the film comes to close, although there’s a terrific economy of storytelling in the cutting elsewhere. It’s a certainty that the film will prove divisive as its predecessor, but we found the director’s latest to be a beautiful, hearfelt and raw piece of work. [A-]September 2, 2012 at 11:16 am #68733
Thanks for those Tye-grr. They are better than others that have come out (reviews and reaction). If no one else does I’ll post Var and HR a bit later.September 2, 2012 at 11:20 am #68734
^I was going to post them, but I figured you were since you had mentioned them both in your initial post. It seems, as is often the case with Malick, to be a bit mixed at the moment. I’m hearing it’s a beautiful (even emotional) film, yet it was booed, and some just don’t like it. So… Guess we’ll see once more reviews come in what the general consensus is.September 2, 2012 at 11:21 am #68735
I think you’re overreacting a bit, SF. Last year, in Cannes, Malick had just as divisive response, and he still walked away a Palme D’Or winner, and the passionate support led it to become one of the year’s most acclaimed films even with a lot of detractors. We’re still to see how reaction shakes out, and I don’t buy that the booing and two bad reviews is reason enough to declare reception as “underwhelming”. We all know that there’s always some sections of the press in the screenings that will shit on everything he does, so I’ll worry once consensus atcually starts to form.September 2, 2012 at 12:01 pm #68736
^I was going to post them, but I figured you were since you had mentioned them both in your initial post. It seems, as is often the case with Malick, to be a bit mixed at the moment. I’m hearing it’s a beautiful (even emotional) film, yet it was booed, and some just don’t like it. So… Guess we’ll see once more reviews come in what the general consensus is.
Seems as if so often there’s rumours about “booers”. Let them boo. I read all of the reviews you’ve posted and am already captivated. Malick’s most “intimate film since Days of Heaven” ?
Bring it on.September 2, 2012 at 12:23 pm #68737
The Toronto response will be even more important, and likely determines how eager US distribs are to reach for this. It isn’t always the case, but 95% of the time, the two US trade reviews set the tone for the overall American press reaction (they were both actually better than the Metacritic consensus for Tree of Life – 100 and 95 scores compared to the ultimate 85 average).
I’ve been expecting this film to bear the brunt of the backlash to the Tree of Life reviews, which indicated a year end critics group awards winner that ended up with much less than expected before coming back with a decent Oscar showing.
Todd McCarthy, who loved Tree of Life, calls (at least in the headline) this film a mishmash in H’wood Rep:
Everyone and everything is contaminated to Terrence Malick, who fills his film with one inconclusive scene after another.
To the Wonder will, as they used to say, separate the men from the boys when it comes to die-hard allegiance to all things Terrence Malick. A severely impressionistic account of the ebbs and flows in the romantic life of a man so remote that he’s essentially a noncharacter in his own drama, this sometimes beautiful, dramatically inert evocation of remembered moments from two intense but ultimately unharmonious relationships takes the voice-over technique employed in sections of The Tree of Life and runs with it for nearly the duration.
our editor recommends
However accomplished Malick’s technique might be in some ways, this mostly comes off, especially in the laborious second hour, as visual doodling without focused thematic goals. Currently without a distributor domestically, this ultimately enervating film will have trouble rustling up audiences in any market.
There is one type of viewer who will definitely go for the film in a big way — those with a literally unlimited appetite for watching Olga Kurylenko prance, waft, twirl and cavort through sun-flared handheld shots to exult in being carefree and happy. There is truly no end of shots like this, quite a few of which also involve various soft fabrics she can touch or pass; Rachel McAdams gets to partake in a bit of this too, although Ben Affleck does not. In fact, he doesn’t get to do much of anything except look sullen, grim and/or blank in the back of or on the edge of shots while the camera emphasizes the woman.
At least one thing is clear about the film, and that’s the meaning of the title, because it is explained right away. In French-language voiceover from Kurylenko’s Marina, we hear about Mont Saint-Michel as a place classically referred to as “the wonder” as she and her man (Affleck) walk through the wet sand around the monument off the shore of Normandy to the profound strains of the prelude to the first act of Wagner’s Parsifal.
“Love makes us one,” Marina intones, and she and her guy (whose name is never stated but is listed in the credits as Neil) do seem very much in love. But after about 10 minutes, the couple and Marina’s 10-year-old daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) are suddenly in the flat, treeless plains country of Oklahoma, where Neil has taken work in the detection of ground and water contamination (the production notes refer to Neil as an aspiring writer, but that’s never mentioned either). “A land so calm. Honest. Rich,” Marina states in between gleeful spins around her sparsely furnished home and through laundry hanging out back. But also boring. Dull. Lifeless. Tatiana is the first to figure this out, as she can make no friends at school. Then Marina has to admit, “There’s something missing.” Neil, as usual, has nothing to say.
With the lead couple running out of gas, narration duties are passed over to Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who’s had a similar realization. “My heart is cold,” he confesses, adding that he’s lost his direct connection with God. The priest delivers dull sermons to mostly empty pews and dutifully makes the rounds to life’s derelict and unfortunates, but without vigor or a sense of real mission.
So God is silent and the people’s souls are numb in this land of cookie-cutter houses, seen-better-days town centers, soaring electrical towers and endless roads. Everyone and everything seems undernourished in this environment so, at the 40-minute mark, Marina and Tatiana decamp to Paris.
But then Neil chances to meet Jane (McAdams), a former flame whose life is in disarray. But she does have a lovely farm house up on a bluff, and the renewed couple gambols through nature, through wheat fields where it’s always magic hour, amid scenic herds of buffalo and finally into the sack. But within just minutes of screen time, this idyll goes south as well, with Jane, in one of her few lines of dialogue, saying, “What we had was nothing. You made it into nothing.”
At this point, one might be justified in asking serious questions about Neil, a leading contender for biggest cypher of a leading man in modern cinema. With the barest shards of dialogue to speak, Neil holds his women tight when love is strong, approaches them with concerned sympathy when they turn unhappy and broods in corners or while driving a car once a rupture looks inevitable. Regardless of whether there was once more for the character to do on the scripted page, the film as edited concentrates almost entirely on the women and makes Neil look like an ineffectual bystander. Of course, Malick has a history of drastically cutting down male roles; he essentially eliminated Adrien Brody’s leading role from The Thin Red Line, and Sean Penn didn’t fare too well in The Tree of Life. Here, it could have been a stand-in for all it matters, as Affleck isn’t given a chance.
Still, through the film’s first half, one can at least hope and anticipate that all the dramatic uncertainty and vagueness will have a point and payoff. But things dissipate considerably during the second hour after Marina, unhappy in Paris and now without her daughter, surprisingly returns to Oklahoma, where life is as uneventful as ever. One inconclusive sequence after another plays out as the same pattern is repeated all over again, as everything in life, including her relationship with Neil, is either contaminated or dead.
The one sequence with any punch and, perhaps not coincidentally, with sustained live dialogue as opposed to voice-over, involves Marina’s live-wire Italian friend Anna (a fired-up Romina Mondello), who challenges her friend to shake things up and get a pulse. “There’s nothing here!” she is not the first to point out. Marina does eventually do something out of character, but it’s a shallow gesture, and the wrap-up provides no synthesis or insight into what’s just been witnessed.
Aspects of the story, involving a foreign wife and an encounter with a previously known woman, are said to be autobiographical for Malick. But given how neutered and uncommunicative the male figure has been made, the film offers no strong sense of personal experience other than a feel for the physical environment, which is the aspect of Malick’s work that always comes across most acutely no matter what the subject.
The physicality of the images in To the Wonder is undeniable but, because of the relentless handheld movements and constant recomposing within individual shots, the visuals seem more arbitrary and certainly less predetermined than in the director’s previous films. Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki went part-way down this road in The Tree of Life, but they’ve gone so far now that it feels like the late 1960s all over again.
By far the most sophisticated and complex element of the film is the soundtrack, which would likely to be instructive to listen to on its own, without the pictures. On a first impression, it consists of layer upon layer, with an eclectic selection of work by famous composers (Berlioz, Hayden, Respighi, Tchaikovsky, Gorecki, Part, et al.) blended with more esoteric choices and contributions by composer Hanan Townshend along with the voice-overs and natural sounds.
Perhaps there is a hidden rhythmic and thematic structure behind the facade of To the Wonder that has to do with the coming and going of seasons and emotions, the rise and fall of relationships, the difficulty of sustaining love and faith and so on, all connected to the use of music and the echoing of voice-over. If so, however, it doesn’t assert itself meaningfully during the act of watching a film that seems drained of life and ideas rather than sustained by them.
September 2, 2012 at 12:26 pm #68738
Variety/Justin Chang – more sympathetic than Todd, but far below his Cannes rave for The Tree of Life:
Terrence Malick continues to take bold risks, courting ridicule and rapture in equal measure, with “To the Wonder,” his first full-on treatment of that oldest of movie subjects, romantic love. Staying in the semi-autobiographical vein of “The Tree of Life,” the suddenly industrious writer-director finds tenderness and beauty in a whisper-thin story of passion, marriage and betrayal that all but erases the line between the secular and the sacred. Those who can’t abide Malick’s spiritual reveries will steer clear, but flaws and all, this is ravishing, distrib-worthy work from a filmmaker who hasn’t lost his capacity to move and surprise.
The arrival of a new picture bearing Malick’s name just 15 months after his previous release is something few of his devotees would have dreamed possible a while ago, coming from a director who took a legendary 20-year hiatus between “Days of Heaven” and “The Thin Red Line.” Yet the fleet, intimate nature of this sixth feature, set entirely in the present day (another first), feels appropriate to its shorter gestation period and production schedule.
Although far less ambitious than “The Tree of Life,” a distinction that will likely be reflected commercially, “To the Wonder” nonetheless feels deeply connected to its predecessor, likewise employing glancing, impressionistic imagery and prayerful voiceover to wrap its characters in an intense miasma of spiritual inquiry. Perhaps the film’s most potentially divisive stroke is the direct connection it makes between romantic and Christian devotion, as Malick again draws on a chapter of his life, specifically his 1985-98 marriage to a Frenchwoman, laying personal history bare with an emotional nakedness that seems especially startling in light of his reclusive rep.
Opening with an atypical blast of rough, grainy homevideo footage, the film conjures the swooning ecstasy of a young relationship as Midwest native Neil (Ben Affleck) wanders the streets of Paris with local beauty Marina (Olga Kurylenko). Backed by Wagner, Haydn and other selections from the canon, Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera swirls freely around the lovers as they kiss on a bridge over the Seine; play with Marina’s young daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline); and take a side trip to the abbey of Mont Saint-Michel, a beautiful island off the coast of Normandy rightly known as “the Wonder of the West.”
The lyrical earnestness with which Malick enshrines the glory of love may provoke a spasm of embarrassment early on, approaching a well-worn cinematic subject with the ardency and naivete of an explorer stumbling on a new world. There’s beauty but also banality in aphorisms like “You lifted me from the ground” and “If you love me, there’s nothing else I need,” and Marina’s breathy French-language v.o. can’t help but occasionally flirt with Euro art-film parody.
But the flush of first love soon vanishes, along with any sense of vapidity, as Marina and Tatiana come to live with Neil in Bartlesville, Okla., whose wide, flat landscapes and golden wheat tones look straight out of “Badlands.” The couple’s new life together is happy but not entirely fulfilled, and the film, without breaking away from its elliptical, convulsive style, complicates the situation with remarkably concrete developments: Neil isn’t quite ready to commit, and Marina can’t marry him without breaking her Catholic vows to her wayward first husband.
When Marina heads back to Paris with Tatiana, Neil seeks momentary solace with an old classmate, Jane (Rachel McAdams), inspiring a brief narrative digression in which Malick seems at least as interested in the horses on Jane’s ranch as he is in the woman herself. Similarly hovering around the edges of the story is Neil’s priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who’s experiencing a deep crisis of faith. Once Marina returns and marries Neil in a civil ceremony, the film draws an intuitive if somewhat inelegant connection between Quintana’s diminished fervor and the challenges the newlyweds face as practical concerns overtake passion.
The beauty of “To the Wonder” is that it sees no contradiction between its characters’ religious beliefs and the universally recognizable stages they go through as a couple: infatuation and love, disillusionment and quarreling, the waning of passion and the lure of temptation. It’s perhaps Malick’s simplest, most relatable evocation yet of paradise lost, and if the helmer can be accused of idealizing his subject, he’s rendered it with a strong sense of emotional stakes.
The film’s intentions arguably would have been better served by actors less well known and/or less attractive than these two, particularly in light of the non-pro Oklahoma locals who appear when Quintana pays visits to the sick, poor and incarcerated. Still, the performances are enveloping and affecting; Affleck tamps down his movie-star affect as the gentle, taciturn Neil, and the radiant Kurylenko, whose Marina dominates the film’s perspective, gives a physically vivacious turn with a deeply melancholy core.
Never before has Malick explored sexuality so openly onscreen, and while the nudity is fairly discreet, the eroticism of flesh cradling flesh, even the gesture of a hand touching a shoulder, turns out to be a natural subject for Lubezki’s exquisitely graceful camerawork. If shots of characters running through overgrown fields (at one point encountering a random herd of bison) feel de rigueur by this point, the modern conveniences shown here, such as a Skype chat on Marina’s laptop, would seem to point Malick’s sensibility in a promising new directionSeptember 2, 2012 at 12:30 pm #68739
Yeah, a Malick film being divisive is news as much as rain being wet or the sky bring blue. I still think it’s too early to tell, but so far, this seems quite intriguing.September 2, 2012 at 12:35 pm #68740
Matt Muller/Indie Wire – Thompson on Hollywood was the other first reaction I saw hours ago, which affected my initial description – it sure seems like it might be closer to the consensus among people who have heretofore been Malick supporters:
There are no dinosaurs in Terrence Malick’s sixth feature (greeted at this morning’s festival press screening with a mix of “Bravo!”s and boos), but there are bison, sea turtles, prairies, toxic sludge, sun-dappled water, more prairies, a conflicted priest (Javier Bardem) and enough pirouetting by Olga Kurylenko to make you imagine that she probably felt dizzy at the end of each day’s shooting.
It’s a floatier, more ethereal variety than Moira Shearer’s mad spinning in “The Red Shoes”, but since twirling with her arms outstretched seems to be her favoured mode of expression it sometimes leaves you wondering if her character Marina isn’t supposed to be a little unhinged herself – a dreamy free spirit from Paris who seemingly takes the wrong turn in life by allowing herself to be caged in the Midwestern tract home of Ben Affleck’s aloof, inexpressive Neil.
Affleck has joked that “The Tree Of Life” looks like “The Transformers” compared to “To The Wonder”. The former certainly delineates a grander, more robust and ambitious narrative than the slim, simple storyline of the latter, which doesn’t dip into the origins of the cosmos but does append faith and God to its primary concern, which is the elusive, confusing, mysterious nature of love as surveyed within the lush, spacey delirium of a typical Malick dreamscape.
At times it’s a many-splendored thing: the two women who worship Affleck in “To The Wonder” (the other being a hometown girl played by Rachel McAdams, who he briefly falls for after Marina flees back to Europe) feel it passionately and express it a thousand times over in breathy voiceover and transparent facial cues; Affleck, who probably has four lines in the movie but does engage in plenty of melancholy embraces and wistful walks through tall grassy fields, doesn’t seem to feel much at all; and Bardem, in a subplot that crops up now and again when you’ve all but forgotten it, grapples with his love for God as he mingles with his flock in the small Oklahoma town that’s also home to Neil and Marina.
Malick is a revered cinematic poet, deservedly so, and striving for lyrical transcendence on screen is his worthwhile ambition. But it’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card either. “To The Wonder”, to me, played like a slighter (and more repetitive) version of “The Tree Of Life” in most respects, its flowing, exquisite imagery and elegant soundscape certainly pleasing to the eye and ear but the moves and motives of its sketchy characters failing to offer enough substance to nourish the spirit. At one point, Marina’s daughter observes as her mother continues her very long wait for Neil to pop the question, “There’s something missing here.” She’s not wrong.September 2, 2012 at 1:05 pm #68741
Screen Int’l is the British Var/HRep – I used to post their reviews regularly until they went subscriber only. They now are back open to all, and I am going to resume posting them, since they usually are valuable.
For those who don’t know – I am a long-time Malick admirer. The Tree of Life remains the single most dismaying and disappointing film viewing experience in my life. It was a truly painful moment. So I have been hoping for a return to form for him. Reading all the responses so far – even the favorable ones – I fear this one is going to be the breaking point for even many of those who defended The Tree of Life. Obviously it’s early, but that’s what I get from reading everything.
Dir/scr: Terrence Malick. US. 2012. 113mins
After The Tree Of Life, Terrence Malick continues his slow wade into the mystic swamp in To The Wonder, shedding vain and distracting directorial possessions like character, dialogue, acting and story along the way in order to focus on the cosmic universals – though this time with a more overtly Christian flavour. It may be that we’re being taken into a dream life of remembered fragments here, or perhaps a series of flashbacks in the instant before death, played in extreme slow motion.
Emmanuel Lubezki’s magic-hour photography is as ravishing as ever – and together with Hanan Townshend’s sensitive, unfurling orchestral soundtrack, comes darn close to nailing ‘the wonder’ at times.
The problem is that Malick’s dream of life, with its narrative core of a weak man with a paralysing fear of emotional commitment, just isn’t that interesting or original. The pictures are pretty, the music is pretty, the existential voice-overs are pretty: but after almost two hours of wistful, message-larded prettiness, Malick’s latest visual symphonic poem has us squirming in our seats.
More booed than applauded at its Venice press premiere, the film will struggle to match the respectable arthouse and urban miniplex world tour enjoyed by The Tree of Life. One problem is that it is, essentially, more of the same – not so much Tree Of Life 2, as Tree Of Life Redux – and as the end titles reveal, Malick even reuses footage from his previous film. Another snag is that if the performances of Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain gave an edge to that fitfully engaging cosmic ramble, the same cannot be said of the name cast of To the Wonder – though it’s perhaps not Ben Affleck and Javier Bardem’s fault if they never take off. It’s feels as if Malick has told them just to wander around looking pained.
Playing out like a short treatment, the story opens in France, where a couple whose names we never learn (unless we read the pressbook) are captured, via impressionistic, jump cut fragments, in the throes of first love. They’re played by an affectless Affleck and Ukrainian-born French actress Olga Kuryenko, whose look-at-me mannerisms are a distraction to all but the worshipping camera.
She turns out to have a ten-year-old daughter, Tatiana (Chiline, in one of the film’s only really convincing performances) who gets on well with her mum’s new boyfriend. After a visit to the island monastery of Mont St-Michel – which (as we are not informed) was once known as ‘La Merveille’, or The Wonder – they relocate to somewhere in the Mid-West (actually Oklahoma), where the Affleck character seems to work as an environmental engineer for a mining company (we see him wandering over slag heaps and being cornered by residents angered by the lead and cadmium levels in their backyards).
The honeymoon phase soon wears off – for the woman, as well as the audience – and she looks for spiritual guidance from a Catholic priest (Bardem, whose sudden, incongruous appearance on the screen prompted a burst of laughter from the Venice audience) who is himself going through a moody crisis of faith.
With Tatiana not fitting in at her new school, her mother’s visa running out and Affleck’s character too frozen by his fear of commitment to offer marriage, mother and daughter eventually leave. While they’re away, Affleck takes up with Jane (McAdams), an old childhood flame. But the Kuryenko character can’t find work back in Paris, and wants to return to give the relationship one more chance.
That sounds almost like a story, but Malick’s method, as in The Tree Of Life, is to shoot around scenes rather to shoot scenes, to encourage what looks like extensive improvisation – and then edit the few more conventional dramatic sequences to lose most of the dialogue; Affleck is left with barely a line. One of the few characters who is given much dialogue is Italian actress Romina Mondello, who suddenly pops up as a confidante we never realised the Kuryenko character had. It’s an odd choice, as the virtual monologue in which she encourages her friend to free herself (in Italian – one of four languages that appear in the film) is one of the film’s more ridiculous scenes.
Emmanuel Lubezki’s magic-hour photography is as ravishing as ever – and together with Hanan Townshend’s sensitive, unfurling orchestral soundtrack, comes darn close to nailing ‘the wonder’ at times. But the reduction of drama to voice-over comments and revelations (Bardem’s are in Spanish, Kuryenko’s in French and English) becomes wearing well before the mid-point.
When the Kuryenko character murmurs “We fight”, it’s news to us – but then, as if by magic, we see her and her man fighting. This is story, and male-female relationships, reduced to the schematic level of The Four Ages of Man, and Malick’s undoubtedly sincere attempt to reach beyond the deceiving surface to the essence of things feels, in the end, like a brand of coffee-table existentialism.September 2, 2012 at 1:40 pm #68742
Well, this is obviously not taking the main prize (so far, it seems “The Master” and “Fill The Void” have the more passionate and universial acclaim), but I think there’s a chance Olga Kurylenko wins Actress. Someone selse could come along change this, but out of all the reviews I read, many seem to be really enchanted by her screen presence.September 2, 2012 at 4:00 pm #68743
Mixed reviews outta Venice isn’t the worst thing ever. Definitely agree
with whoever said Toronto is the make or break in terms of oscar
An Pook im right their with you in regards to your “bring in on” sentiment.
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