Monday, April 15, 2013

What is this love that loves us?

To the Wonder's haunting, beautiful opening scenes follow the film's lovers Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) as they visit Mont Saint-Michel. The shots of Neil and Marina exploring the eighth-century architecture and playing on the soft, almost rubbery beach as the water creeps in capture the heady, ephemeral feeling of the early stages of a romance as clearly as any movie I can remember. From these early scenes, it's clear that Terrence Malick is pushing the abstract, roaming narrative approach he's become known for further than he ever has, which gives them the bittersweet quality of a fond, fleeting memory. Almost as soon as we've been introduced to Neil, Marina and her daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), the film abruptly moves to Oklahoma, where Neil has brought Marina and Tatiana to live with him. Malick follows the ebbs and flows of Neil and Marina's romance with this same elliptical, poetic style; it's a romance on a cosmological scale, a representation for Malick of our (often strained) relationship with the infinite. Though the scale of the drama is as intimate as Malick has ever attempted, it's characteristically ambitious, both formally and thematically; the result is uneven and often maddening, but fascinating nonetheless.

This is Malick's first film set entirely in the present, and the scarce biographical detail about Malick's own life suggests that it's even more personal than The Tree of Life. That his previous movies were all period pieces made them a clearer fit for the prism of memory that the director is increasingly drawn to exploring. It's jarring, in a pleasant way, to see mundane locations like a Sonic drive-in or a grocery store through Malick's eyes. As always, Malick's camera is very busy, circling the actors, peering out of windows and turning away from the action to catch a flower or rainwater flowing over leaves into a sewer grate (cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki has become Malick's most important collaborator). As others have noted, Malick choreographs his actors like a dance - when Neil and Marina fight, we see them chase each other from one room for the next, and in its impressionistic way, the moment perfectly captures the roaming tension of a real-life argument between lovers. With the near-total absence of dialogue, we can understand the health of Neil and Marina's relationship in terms of how they move around and apart from one another. Kurylenko is particularly suited to Malick's approach, allowing her body and movement to become girlish during the early stages of infatuation, animalistic (at points, literally prowling on all fours) when Marina is lusting after Neil, and rigid as their relationship falters and she struggles to regain her sense of place. This probably sounds ridiculous, but Kurylenko deserves a lot of credit for risking ridiculousness and, within what must be a very limiting framework for an actor, creating a character we feel we know and understand.

As Neil and Marina separate, reconnect and grow apart again, Malick connects the love between two people to a very Christian concept of communion with the world around us, even as God's presence and love for us can seem very elusive. This is made explicit by Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), the local priest, who shows compassion to the poor, sick and drug-addicted people in his town even as he struggles with his own loneliness and distance from God. This aspect of the movie has been met with derisive chuckles by many of the film's reviewers, but I was actually fond of it; there are very few modern American filmmakers who deal with religious faith in a serious way, and I admire Malick's bravery in his earnest depiction of the world as beautiful and divine, even as he explores spiritual doubt. Less successful is the attempt, through Neil's work as an environmental engineer, of exploring our destructive impact on the earth; this was handled more successfully in The Thin Red Line, and it's brought up so cursorily here that it would have probably been better to leave it out.

The problem I had with parts of To the Wonder wasn't Malick's style, however, but the vague aspects of things he seems to have deliberately left out. While Kurylenko and Bardem do as much as they can with the little character detail they're given, Affleck and, especially, Rachel McAdams as an old flame Neil reconnects with when Marina returns to France for some time aren't given enough to work with, and their characters remain total ciphers. I don't mean to suggest Malick should have pursued a more conventional approach to character development, but I can't fully feel the intimacy I think he wants us to if I don't know who these people are, and it would be very possible for him to create distinct characters without sacrificing the qualities that make To the Wonder unique. A film like In the Mood For Love, for instance, is similarly elliptical and poetic, but by the film's end, we know who the two main characters are, and the result is emotionally devastating. Malick's own Badlands is also about relationships, but Kit and Holly are such indelible characters that the film moves us as both a story and a poem of images. By the end of To the Wonder, I had no idea who Neil was, though Affleck tries gamely. While there were certain scenes and moments that resonated with my own experiences with love, it was in a very broad sense; by reducing his characters to pure archetype, Malick has created a film that is aesthetically and intellectually interesting but emotionally remote, and I don't think that was his intention. If the movie is about how we know God by knowing one another, than why don't we ever get to know these people?

I'd known, going into the film, that Malick was also married to a French woman with a daughter who moved with him to Texas, that they eventually divorced, and that Malick later married a woman he'd known when he was younger. What I didn't know is that Malick's ex-wife died shortly before he would have begun the process of writing To the Wonder. I found this incredibly sad, and I immediately understood To the Wonder much more clearly; I occasionally wonder what it will feel like if my ex-wife passes away before I do, and I can understand why it would compel Malick to revisit the relationship. I wish that I had felt that urgency in the film; perhaps because the movie is so close to his own experiences, Malick remains elusive when I would have preferred him to be open, philosophical even in the moments when the movie badly needs a naked expression of feeling. Even the sex scenes are strangely cold - I don't mean to sound like a letch, but if you're going to have your attractive female leads disrobe, to drain the moments of any eroticism seems almost as exploitative as pornographic leering. For these reasons, To the Wonder was a surprising disappointment, at least when compared against Malick's other films. My problem wasn't Malick being Malick (I love all of his previous films), it was that the film badly needed its director, who sees the whole world with such incredible clarity, to look inward.

That said, To the Wonder is still very much worth seeing, as even when Malick stumbles a bit, he's still a master filmmaker. I realized, at one point, that I had no idea how long I'd been watching the film, and this is to Malick's credit - he makes films for us to lose ourselves in. The film frequently favors low-angle shots that keep the sun or moon in the frame, quietly reminding us that our own dramas are a small part of a much larger chain of being. We need films and directors who remind us of that, and more than anything, I admire Malick for continuing to march to his own beat knowing that the movies he makes aren't for everyone but inviting us to see things through his eyes all the same. A friend I saw the movie with remarked that "If Malick keeps this up, he's going to be in trouble." Perhaps, but I know that whatever trouble he gets himself into next, I'll be there on opening weekend.

No comments: