Playing at the Angelika Film Center this weekend. For movie showtimes in your area please visit the Anglika Film Center website.
Film Review by: Gordon K. Smith
Watching Terrence Malick films can be like watching the paint on the Mona Lisa dry. While half your brain is going, “My God, how beautiful”, the other half is going “My God, how tedious”. This is perfectly illustrated by his latest, TO THE WONDER, which comes less than two years after his last, THE TREE OF LIFE (consider that 20 years passed between DAYS OF HEAVEN and THE THIN RED LINE), and only solidifies Malick’s rep as a dazzling visual stylist and weak dramatist. For me, the uber-cerebral TREE at least was fascinating as a recreation of the way people remember their childhood experiences, in bits and pieces, flashes of memories. Otherwise my brain gave up about two-thirds of the way through with such a deliberate lack of dramatic momentum.
That surrender comes sooner with TO THE WONDER, which consists of 113 minutes of non-linear shimmering images and interior dialog (mostly in French) of Ukranian Marina (Olga Kurylenko, QUANTAM OF SOLACE) and later Father Quintana (Javier Bardem). There’s less of a plot than a setup – in Paris, Marina and her daughter Tatiana meet American Neil (Ben Affleck, who has less than 10 audible lines in the whole movie). From there they go to Mont St. Michel, where Marina agrees to follow Neil to Bartlesville, Oklahoma, where he’s been assigned as an environmental inspector. Later they get married (three times?), have a falling out, she goes back to Europe, he takes up briefly with an old flame (Rachel Adams), she comes back, has an affair of her own. Meanwhile, Father Quintana attends to the poor in Bartlesville and deals with a crisis of faith/conscience, which we know from HIS interior dialog, partly in Spanish. You logically, but wrongly, expect a big intersection between his storyline and that of Neil and Marina.
Anyway, that’s my best guess, because the film is so deliberately disjointed it makes your brain hurt. The narrative jumps around in time, tangential characters with little or no introduction pop in and out, there’s scant exposition. The sheer juxtaposition of Paris and the Oklahoma prairie, and their cultures, keeps it interesting for awhile, but not nearly two hours. Bardem’s character, and his themes, seem to be in another movie entirely much of the time. Compared to this, THE THIN RED LINE was a model of gripping narrative coherency. Malick is also credited with the screenplay, although word is the film was largely improvised; the film is about emotional, not structural revelations. If you’re a Malick fan, that’s how you will connect with TO THE WONDER, that it’s less about the story as it is about getting inside the characters’ heads. The images by cinematographer Emmanuel Tubezki, are like paging through a classy coffee table photography book – with lots of Malick’s trademark water imagery – but also often random – good luck figuring out the meaning of frequent shots of jet trails, street lamps and underwater turtles.
Even hardcore fans of Malick’s refusal to conform to standard movie syntax may be put to the test by pretentious subtitled thought balloons like “In a dream, you can be whatever you want”. And in a “dream” movie, you can do whatever you want, forget cogent storytelling. Yes, he’s more interested in getting to the emotional truth of a relationship, but whatever truths are there eluded me, except that relationships are hard, which isn’t exactly news. What I did find quite interesting is that this film has more emphasis on sex than Malick’s previous films, with some erotic visuals certainly pleasing to the eye. The actors give it their best under the circumstances; Malick uses extras and bit players strikingly, Bardem is always memorable, and McAdams manages to make an impression even in her brief-by-design appearance. More of her character would have helped this film a lot of ways.
|Director: Terrence Malick|
|Cast: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams|
|Screenwriters: Terrence Malick|
|Producers: Glen Basner, Charley Beil, Nicolas Gonda, Hans Graffunder, Joseph Krigsfeld, Jason Krigsfeld|