Synopsis: A Parisian woman (Olga Kurylenko) moves to Oklahoma, struggling to find happiness while married to her husband (Ben Affleck). A local priest (Javier Bardem) struggles with his faith. Trailer.
In the heady days when auteur theory was first burgeoning forth, courtesy of Andrew Sarris, Truffaut, and others, it was taken as a point of pride and skill when a director could assert his authorial voice in his films such that you could instantly identify who its maker was. This concept still holds largely true, and I for one believe there's no better definition for a great director. Howard Hawks said it best when Peter Bogdonavich once asked him what great direction was: "when you can tell who the devil made it."
When you put on any film by Scorsese, Fellini, Welles, Mann, Antonioni- it doesn't take more than a few minutes to tell who the director is. The confident and dexterous clarity of voice these greats and others possess is, in my mind, the indicator of a great director by the same measure in wchich we evaluate great authors and composers.
Not everyone loves Malick, but everyone will agree that his films are instantly identifiable. His latest is by far his most divisive, but I think it's one of his best. To The Wonder follows a woman's (Kurylenko) relationship with her husband (Affleck) and a priest's (Javier Bardem) relationship to God. Both are searching for- what? happiness, self-realization, peace. Deep, inner satisfaction.
The film assumes your understanding of the basic plot and chooses to go deeper, dispensing with story and exploring instead the textures of this search. The approach feels both broadly sketched and startlingly intimate (especially in its use of voiceover) at the same time. Definitely the most abstract so far of Malick's already fairly abstract work, the content of To The Wonder is told mostly through its elliptically sequenced images. On first watch it's an exhausting experience, as most of these films are– here replicating the restless turmoil of frustrated love, the ever-moving camera demanding our complete attention. Ask yourself if Olga's narrated ruminations are directed at her husband, or perhaps in fact at God.
Affleck told audiences at Telluride that the film "makes Tree of Life look like Transformers," and indeed, it's a challenging film- but only if you're expecting a normal movie. I say let the images wash over you. The joy of the camera, swinging through the trees in Paris, making tangible the energy of early love; the mystery of the last two shots, which when paired together evoke a loss, but also the calmness of having been found; whispered nothings on the soundtrack, ruminations of lonely people, as they walk around in the corners of the widescreen frame. Don't try to decode everything- let the ideas and sensations work their way into you, right-brain style, of their own accord. Things will click together on your drive home, or a day later.
Suffice it to say that if you're feeling adventurous, and are someone who finds yourself ruminating often on whether or not love is connected to self-realization, or the existence of God, the frustration of not knowing people who are close to you, or breaking free from doubt... you'll find this film of interest. Certainly there is no more rapturously beautiful film to come out this year- wherever Malick turns his artful gaze, our perspective is transformed by his. Sight & Sound critic Nick Pinkerton writes on the subject better than I can:
"Malick is one of few filmmakers who could, in the space of a few images, go from Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy to a fast-food drive-through in Oklahoma without implying a pejorative judgement about either, dismissing the Old World for the New or vice versa. At one point, Bardem’s priest preaches about the necessary will behind a husband’s conjugal love – “He does not find [his wife] lovely, he makes her lovely” – and Malick similarly does not film things because they are beautiful; they become beautiful because he films them."
Malick, a former Oxford Philosophy professor (he translated Heidegger's Essence of Reasons into English), invests his films with a wisdom of observation that makes the act of watching his films feel valuable- but never in a preachy way, as most of the meat of the picture is not explicit, but implicit in imagery and music.
Pinkerton's full Sight & Sound review is one of the best pieces on the film; also insightful is Roger Ebert's famous writeup- this was the last film Ebert reviewed before dying. Both men offer similar appraisals on the film while coming from very different places, and address some of the concerns brought up by other viewers. Not a film everyone will take to, but one I can't get enough of.
The Playlist. Venice Review: Terrence Malick’s ‘To The Wonder’ Is A Raw & Heartfelt Film Of Loss And Longing
The Los Angeles Times. Marveling at meditative ‘To the Wonder’
Salon. Terrence Malick's rapturous, religious love story
Time. Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder: Rapturous, Forbidding, Wondrous