This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: "To the Wonder" is a bafflement.
Terence Malick's strange new meditation on life, love, and the search for the holy spirit is undeniably beautiful to look at, but it has a negligible story line -- a couple fall in love, become romantic partners, break up, then get back together again -- and very little dialogue. "To the Wonder" feels at times like a silent film, with few words spoken for long stretches. Even when characters say something, they often do so off camera. People speak to the wind, and only the wind answers. Adding to the sense of disconnection is the movie's shifting time frame -- it slides into the past or the future without warning.
At times, "To the Wonder" feels like nothing more than a few leaves drifting down from Malick's "The Tree of Life." That extraordinary 2011 human epic conflated the life of a Texas family in the middle of the last century with the history of the Earth and indeed of the universe. The main human characters in "The Tree of Life" were as vivid and real as thunder and lightning; even the dinosaurs were memorable. The main characters in "To the Wonder" are as insubstantial as mist.
Ben Affleck stars as Neil, an American traveling in Europe. He meets Marina, a Ukrainian woman with a 10-year-old daughter. Neil and Marina fall in love in Paris and hand-in-hand visit the spectacular island abbey of Mont St. Michel -- called "La Merveille" ("The Wonder") by the French. They seem to melt into one another in one of the most spiritually charged places on Earth, the abbey's garden cloister, which seems to whisper with the voices of generations of devout monks. Long after they have left Mont St. Michel, the two main characters speak in low tones, as if they were still at the abbey.
The brief scenes in the cloister, with the sun and the clouds and the sea in the background, are stunning -- Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who also shot "The Tree of Life," compose layered landscapes like master Dutch painters.
The rest of the movie, in a sense, is about the couple trying to return to "the Wonder" and the exalted state they shared there. But can they get there from Oklahoma?
Neil takes Marina and her daughter, Tatiana, home with him to the oil fields, where he is some sort of environmental inspector. (Trying to figure out exactly what Neil does, and who pays him to do it, is difficult, if not intentionally impossible. There is a sketchiness about the two main characters that persists throughout the movie. It's up to us, I suppose, to decide whether they represent everyman, or nobody.)
The three move into a just-built ranch house in a new subdivision slashed out of the prairie, without a tree in sight. The subdivision is a visual affront after Paris and Mont St. Michel, but Malick also makes it clear with his camera that the prairie can be beautiful, with sun-splashed grass waving all the way to the horizon. But it sure isn't Paris or the coast of Normandy.
Increasingly lonely, and nagged by her daughter to go back to Europe, Marina finds a quantum of solace in the comforting words of another immigrant, a priest unsure of his vocation played splendidly by Javier Bardem.
Malick is one of the most interesting filmmakers alive, but it is sometimes hard to know what the writer-director intended us to take home from "To the Wonder." Searching for an entry to the movie, I came upon an apt quote by Ben Affleck, himself an accomplished filmmaker and a longtime fan of the work of Malick. Affleck, who speaks barely an audible word in the two-hour-long film, had this to say off screen about "To the Wonder":
"The film feels to me like more a memory of a life than a literal story in real time of someone's life, the way movies more commonly are. This pastiche of impressionistic moments, skipping across the character's life and moving in a non-linear way, mirrors. . .the way one remembers one's life. It's a little hypnotic and you're a little bit in a daze. It's more fluid than real life is."
That's a revealing quote, and "more fluid than real life" seems particularly appropriate, if not necessarily something that is desired in a movie. In any event, "To the Wonder" is worth seeing for Paris, and for Mont St. Michel, and for the sun shining through the prairie grass on the gently rolling hills just outside of Bartlesville. Maybe that's enough.