TIFF 2012 Review: TO THE WONDER Emotes on Our Ephemeral Existence

"Pourqoi pas Toujours?" (Why not always?) is the question on the mind of Terrence Malick in his latest emotive cinematic meditation -- it could have easily been the title. Here he is less concerned with the connections between the personal and the infinite than he was in Tree of Life, although one may consider To The Wonder a companion film, if only because it is shot and constructed in nearly the same manner. There may even be a shot or two from the previous film used here. 

Gone, however, is the consideration of fathers and sons and the complex divide between them, or coming of age.  Here the film suggest that each 'age' in a person's life, each chapter, however or wherever you wish to draw the dividing lines, is worthy of no regrets (as Ms. Piaf might sing.) Remaining is the invitation to cherish those discrete packages of time that inevitably come to an end. Now, like all Malick films, you could find that to be a trite subject, but, as with all the director's work, he is unabashedly earnest about it.  

His Zen -- enjoy the miracle that is life, even when it treats you badly -- is examined in relationships both past and present, family, faith and even the environmental state of the planet. At one point, I even felt that there was some Antonioni 'geography is a reflection of state of mind' being channeled in the divide between urban Paris and the wide open Midwest American suburbs, although perhaps not so, and probably not worth considering further. 

What the director has kept is the earthy and ethereal treatment of redheads, here former 007 beauty Olga Kurylenko, who, like Jessica Chastain before her, gets the chance to both soar (note the director's particular fascination with women twirling in summer dresses) and suffer in the form of spiritual paralysis (the shadowy yin to the free-spirited yang) over the course of the film's run-time. Like much of the auteur director's post-Days of Heaven work, you will get out of the film what you bring into it. It will either amplify your feelings or tweak them in one direction or another. Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography is, of course, impeccable and glorious, even with the inclusion of some smart-phone and Skype video into the proceedings. 

Like any hypnotist, those unwilling to surrender to his sensual, tactile and languorous method of storytelling are sure to find his storytelling infuriating, even as the narrative in this film is pretty straightforward. Neil (Ben Affleck), an American touring Paris, meets and falls in love with a passionate woman, Marina (Kurylenko), and then moves her and her young daughter, Tatiana, to the American Midwest to start a new life there. Not quite ready to commit to a second marriage and having trouble with the little girl adapting to her new school, Marina and Tatiana return to France and Neil drifts back to his first wife (Rachel McAdams), if only to affirm that that period of his life is over, and another beckons. Marrying Marina to secure her citizenship, they start a life together, while Tatiana remains with her biological father in Europe. The Catholic minister of Neil's church is played by the wonderful Javier Bardem, and is going through a crisis of his own faith, even as he comforts and teaches with elegance and grace.  

Malick takes all of these characters and allows them to "just go a little way in life together" and is very cool and celebratory of endings. Marina at one point says something along the lines of, "Only weak people will not end something, and chose others to let it end for them," which is likely the only judgmental pontification the film has to make. Malick doesn't judge. He shows. 

The priest says about marriage, "A husband does not find her lovely, he makes her lovely," and I'm sure he means that both ways. While the relationship is not meant to last, Neil seems too subdued and practical, while Marina is a restless spirit; again, the film says, enjoy the time together and let it end. Equally interesting is that Neil's day job as an environmental assessment scientist sees him taking soil samples around oil derricks and water from tailing points for analysis. Shots of nature in glory and poison seem to indicate that people take pleasure in something, wasteful or not, use it up, and move on; it is what we do and how we live. Previous generations were blessed to enjoy the planet in a much more natural state, and good for them. The rest can move on to new experiences in what the universe has to offer. "Some times you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you." Fucking Zen.  

Neil's attempt to rekindle his relationship with his ex-wife is brief, and plays out as if both parties know that it is over. Buffalo stare at their passionless lack of connection with complete unawareness. Nature doesn't care, but we creatures of free will shouldn't linger too much on the emotional past, but push forward to new experiences in our brief, cherished lives. That the priest can do his job effectively without actually believing, that he touches lives and comforts souls, and is a known presence, is another step towards Malick's seeming spiritual secular paradox. When the priest moves to Kansas City, well, no regrets: new experiences await on the horizon.

Characters write messages in the air, on the water, and in other ephemeral media. The pleasure in the act is gone like tears in the rain, but, still, it's an act that happened. Hopefully, we all want more life, but stop occasionally to enjoy what you've got. A character stops and stares at the sun shining through a hole left behind in the knot of wood fence, this in a generic cookie cutter modern subdivision. The sun is still gorgeous, it's free, and a gift of joy for us in our time on Earth. To The Wonder is bursting with grace and, hopefully, you as well as I can enjoy Mr. Malick while he continues to offer these celluloid blessings.

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  • Deftworker

    Nice review, sounds good. I'm looking forward to seeing what Bardem's priest journey, and how he regains his faith, unless as you've hinted, he is happy enough knowing he can help others "without actually believing". That kind of sounds like a cop-out from Malick as TOL was all about that spiritual struggle, I hope he hasn't gone all secular and complacent on us lol. Reminds me of Woody Allen's MIdnight in Paris where he seems to criticize nostalgia and romanticism for the past then ends up having his protagonist leave his Fiance and hook up with a woman that most embodies that misplaced nostalgia.
    But Malick is a master and I'm sure im wrong, hopefully there will be a UK release soon.

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