How does a director like Terrence Malick follow up an Academy Award nominated film like The Tree of Life
? Apparently, he does it with more of the same.
To the Wonder
is the loose story of an American man named Neil (Argo
's Ben Affleck) who meets a French woman named Marina (Quantum of Solace
Bond Girl Olga Kurylenko) in Paris and asks her to move to America with her daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline, who also contributes to the film's soundtrack) to live with him. Once there, Marina confides in a priest named Father Quintana (Skyfall
's Javier Bardem) that, due to religious reasons, Marina cannot marry Neil and, therefore, must return to France with Tatiana when her visa expires. While Marina and Neil are separated, Neil reconnects with a childhood friend named Jane (Rachel McAdams from Midnight In Paris
), yet his heart still belongs to Marina and the tumultuous relationship that they share.
Like The Tree of Life
, To the Wonder
is both written and directed by Malick. At first, it seems that "written" might be a subjective term for it, as the film has a very improvisational feel, looking very much at times like Affleck and Kurylenko's home movies. However, there is a method to Malick's madness. The story, if you can call it that, is very vague and liquid, and is a triumph of style over substance; it's extremely easy to get lost in the photography and sound design with no intriguing plot devices to keep the viewer focused. Although it is fun to see Bardem in a non-antagonistic role, the film doesn't really make adequate use of the fine cast that Malick has assembled. The narrative is slow moving and fairly benign, with little action and lots of seemingly unrelated imagery interwoven in. Cinematically, To the Wonder
is so much in the style of Terrence Malick that, at times, it seems that he is almost parodying himself - if another filmmaker was going to imitate a Terrence Malick film, they might come up with To the Wonder
To the Wonder
is a tough film. It's not exactly a non-linear narrative, but it's far from straightforward. There is a story going on, but it's very difficult to follow; even if one does not get distracted by the sheer attractiveness of the film, the events are vague and confusing. Exposition is generally delivered through voiceover narration while the camera captures whatever it sees fit to photograph, with the sound and images not always lining up. That's not to say that the results look like a guerrilla film shoot; to the contrary, every detail and aspect of the film appears to have been meticulously planned out. In some scenes, it even seems that Malick has control over flocks of birds and herds of horses. The film is impeccably shot and expertly edited together but, without the presence of a concrete series of events to grasp on to, the thing winds up too artsy for its own good. To the Wonder
is not for everyone, but fans of Terrence Malick will love it. Everyone else will just scratch their heads and wonder what they just watched.
If there's one thing that Terrence Malick knows how to do, it's make a beautiful film. And To the Wonder is a beautiful film - it's the visual equivalent of a tone poem, a mosaic of sound and imagery that is, in a word, breathtaking. The French scenes were shot in Paris and the American scenes in Oklahoma, and Malick uses the locations to illustrate not only the cultural differences between Neil and Marina, but the emotional distance as well. The French scenes are cold and damp, yet still manage to seem magical and inviting, while the American segments are drab and dusty, showing the boredom and disparity of the suburban American dream. It's a stunning dichotomy, and one that Malick captures extremely well. The voiceover narration is split between French and English as well, further dividing the characters and their motivations. With exhilarating locations, a great cast, and some subtle but effective camera work, Malick manages to capture all of the love and hate, betrayal and forgiveness, and anger and acceptance between Neil and Marina, all despite the absence of a clear plot. One thing is certain, with his showy craftsmanship, To the Wonder definitely features Terrence Malick's name above the title.