You may not guess what is really happening between them. You may not know who they are or how they have lived. You may not understand what exactly it is all about. But you can closely listen to their thoughts and feelings, and these intimate elements are unfolded in front of us with the haunting sights encompassing them.
Terrence Malick’s new film “To the Wonder”, an impressive but elusive visual poem, is mainly a meditative observation on one rocky romantic relationship between Neil(Ben Affleck) and Marina(Olga Kurylenko). Like any couples, they feel happy and joyous as they fall in love with each other, and we see them having a good time in France. They walk together around the streets of Paris, and then they have an ethereal private time on the beach near the Mont Saint-Michel Abbey on one gray day.
As their relationship grows, they begin to consider living together in US, so they go to Neil’s hometown in Oklahoma with Marina’s daughter from her previous marriage. Tatiana(Tatiana Chiline) constantly feels like a stranger in the alien world, but she gets along well with her mother’s boyfriend, and maybe they can be a nice family together in Neil’s house if everything works out well for them.
And then we begin to get the glimpses of the problems inside Neil and Marina’s relationships. It seems Marina has some mental instability issues, and that puts lots of strain on their relationship. Marina looks increasingly unhappy and agitated, and Neil looks troubled and concerned while stoically doing his job outside as an environment inspector, and Tatiana feels that her happy time in US is being over.
Now this sounds a lot like a typical melodrama story with predictable turns, but the movie freely flies along with the stream of consciousness inside the main characters who keep musing and talking to themselves in their narrations throughout the movie. Are they reflecting on what happened to them from the distance through the fragments of their memories, or is it just that we are directly listening to their inner thoughts?
I am not sure, but the random but somehow natural visual flow of the movie is fully supported by the gorgeous images provided by the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who did a dazzling job in Malick’s previous film “The Tree of Life”(2011). The gray tone of the scenes in France makes a striking contrast with the sunny ambience of the scenes in Oklahoma, and Lubezki’s camera deftly captures not only the wide landscapes worthwhile to be appreciated at the theater but also the genuine human feelings inside the characters. We never know a lot about Neil and Marina, but we can always sense how they feel during the individual moments in the film. The reasons behind their conflict are not very clear, but, come to think of it, every couple is bound to have a hard time in the end whatever their reason is, and there are universal aspects about their problems depicted in the movie despite the absence of several specific details; Neil and Marina surely love each other, but are they compatible with each other enough to live together for years?
The movie also looks inside other two people who just happen to be near them. As his relationship with Marina is getting deteriorated, Neil gets close with Jane(Rachel McAdams, who looks far different from her vicious turn in Brian De Palma’s “Passion”(2012)), his high school friend he has not met for years. The movie is mostly vague about their history, but there is something in their mutual interactions as we listen to Jane’s inner voice. Her ranch is messy for some reasons although she tries to manage it as much as she can(it is implied that it was mainly her ex-husband’s fault), and Neil might be a big comfort to her if he chooses to live with her.
And we also observe and listen to Father Quintana(ever-mournful Javier Bardem), a local priest who must have come to US as a foreigner considering that he muses on himself and his life in Spanish like Marina does in French. While he sincerely handles his rituals at the chapel, he has been deeply troubled by his unanswered prayers to God for years. He is a decent man and good priest, and he always responds with kindness and compassion to his flock, but his inner unhappiness is apparent to everyone while he is frustrated to see that there is not much he can do for helping his flock.
So far, I have merely described the characters and their respective circumstances, but there is a lot more than that in this unconventional film which creates an engaging narrative flow of emotions inside its poetic visual kaleidoscope on the screen. Its individual moments are not clearly connected with each other, but they form a big picture together on the whole even though it does not seem to be complete.
There are some crucial points quite murky and opaque in the movie and I frequently wondered about what exactly happened while watching it, but, as my late friend Roger Ebert once pointed out, a film does not always have to explain everything, and “To the Wonder” is impressive to some degrees as it wondrously looks around its landscapes and people. It observes the characters with the somber care and compassion inside its natural beauty, and, shedding their respective star presence, the four principle actors are believable in their restrained performances as the human beings with each own problems and troubles.
Terrence Malick, who is one of the most spiritual directors in our time, has recently been far more prolific than before. While he did not made any single film for 20 years until he returned with “The Thin Red Line”(1998), “To the Wonder” was released less than 2 years after “The Tree of Life”, and he is currently working on three projects to be released in the next year. Whatever the reason is, I think that is a good thing considering what I experienced in this film.