Wednesday, August 14, 2013

To the Wonder: Intimacy and Distance

To the Wonder
US, 2012
Written and Directed by Terrence Malick

Wikipedia classifies To the Wonder as a "romantic drama" film, but that's a very misleading description. Love Story is a "romantic drama." Casablanca is, too, as are a good many films noirs and melodramas. To the Wonder is something else entirely. Most films do one of two things: reveal plot through character, or illuminate character through plot. I'm not sure To the Wonder really qualifies as having either characters or plot. Instead, it seems to be a film that exists to reveal emotion through film style, and perhaps to convey director Terrence Malick's thoughts on his own struggles with love and faith.

The film focuses on a couple, played by Ben Affleck and the luminous Olga Kurylenko. Their names don't matter much, nor does much else about them. They meet in Europe, where she lives with her young daughter (Tatiana Chiline), and fall in love. Eventually she and her daughter move to Oklahoma to be with him, but, like any relationship, what starts white-hot slowly cools—especially when an old flame (Rachel McAdams) enters the picture. Also in Oklahoma, there is a lonely Spanish priest (Javier Bardem) who struggles with that old Bergman conceit, "God's Silence," even as he attempts to console the downtrodden, infirm, and incarcerated. As far as plot and character go, that's more or less it.

The film's focus is elsewhere, on the aesthetics of its shot selection, on Emmanuel Lubezki's unbelievably gorgeous cinematography and ceaselessly-moving camera, and on Malick's trademarked hushed voice-overs, provided here by several castmembers. Because so little of who these people are gets conveyed through traditional means—the film has very little audible dialogue and few dramatic scenes—these bits of internal monologue bring us as close to the characters as we are going to get. Which, sadly, isn't very close at all. Bardem's character feels like he's in a different movie entirely; in spite of his occasional interactions with our central duo, he just never connects. And while, yes, disconnectedness is one of the film's primary themes, this feels more like a lack of focus in the original concept—an assertion backed up by the number of actors who filmed sequences that were eventually excised in toto from the film. This gives the impression that, although Malick clearly had emotional and tonal aims, here, the story was always secondary.

Once you sweep past the beauty of To the Wonder's images (and, indeed, they are some of the most beautiful I've seen in years) and the small, affecting moments Malick captures on his actors' faces, it's hard to say how much is really going on. There's a lot of imagery suggesting loneliness, isolation, and the inability to truly know another person, though its deployment is far from efficient. Still, if you're stirred by the impressionistic collage of elliptically-edited shots of Kurylenko frolicking or moping while Affleck places a firm, paternal hand on her shoulder—without that paternalistic vibe putting you off—then Malick has probably achieved what he wanted. But if you`find yourself struggling to relate to these people, or overwhelmed by the voice-over's philosophical wankery, or simply looking for a narrative hook to hang your hat on, well, firstly, why are you watching a Terrence Malick movie? And secondly, you're not wrong.

This isn't a film that will work for everyone, or even for most people, and that's not because it's something sublime that goes over everyone's heads. It's because not everyone works in this poetic/emotional/spiritual register, and Malick isn't interested in using standard narrative techniques to bridge the gap. That's not to say the film is flawless, even to those people for whom it does work. It's draggy, repetitive, and simultaneously sexualizes, infantilizes, and idealizes its female lead. It's somehow less plot focused, and, therefore, more difficult to grapple with, than the similar (and better) The Tree of Life. And it is a film about intimacy that never invites us to become intimate with the people who drift through its scenes. These are legitimate issues. Whether or not you can look past them is on you. For me, I admired To the Wonder's vision and visuals without ever finding that they touched me, in mind or in spirit.

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