To the Wonder on Blu-ray
Ben Affleck stars in Terrence Malick’s latest
Olga Kurylenko's audition for To the Wonder, she reports in the making-of documentary included with the film's Blu-ray release, was entirely silent. Little wonder then that a script was never written for the film; the actors were allowed to discover their characters with a little coaching from director Terrence Malick, and the plot evolved into the unknown with all the surprise and lack of neat resolution of life itself.
A brief primer into Malick's directorial methods should be required for anyone who strays unwarily into one of his films. In a Hollywood movie, set in the romantic environs of Paris with a couple as attractive as Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Kurylenko) falling in love while walking the quay along the Seine, violins would tremble like heart strings. But Hollywood is the last place on the director's mind. With To the Wonder, Malick continues to challenge the cinematic conventions of storytelling. It's not as difficult as his previous film, Tree of Life, but forces viewers to watch carefully and make intelligent connections. To the Wonder is a love story—bristling with exhilaration and depression—that dares to wonder about our inadequate definitions of love.
Marina's internal musings in French (with English subtitles) provides an elliptical narration, and dialogue in either French or English is sparse. To the Wonder is a visual poem whose rhyming images link scenes in ways obvious and less so. When Marina runs in a Paris park toward the scale model of France's gift to the U.S., the Statue of Liberty, she is transplanted in the next scene to Neil’s hometown in Oklahoma. More open-ended is the meaning of the twirling Paris carnival ride replicated by the moving parts of the oil well pumps, which stud the flat badlands of her new home in America's heartland. Shot with dazzling compositions in natural light, To the Wonder lets us feel Marina's sense of the strangeness of a place where McMansions abut the prairie and longhorn cattle are paraded down Main Street.
The towering feeling of romance, with the playful eroticism of lovers exploring each other, is mirrored in a pair of couples—Neil and Marina and then, after ardor fades to irritation, Neil and Jane (Rachel McAdams), the local girl he picks up with after Marina storms home to Paris. The growing distance between Neil and Marina is signaled by his quick glance at the blond on the far side of a public pool, foreshadowing Jane. Once again, romantic love, perhaps humanity's most primal drug, is a high from which everyone crashes—again and again.
To the Wonder's other major character is Father Quintana, a Roman Catholic priest played in dour low key by Javier Bardem. An elderly parishioner promises to pray for him to receive "the gift of joy" he so evidently lacks. The priest trudges through his ministry of compassion, aware but never touched by "the spiritual light," as an African American janitor puts it. He is tormented by acting out the feelings he doesn't have, even as he supplies To the Wonder with the often-paradoxical axioms of a religion that questions the self-satisfaction of ordinary life. Can "love" be transformed into something higher? Quintana demands of his congregation. Marina, at least, is searching for an answer.