Bitter Sweet Symphony: Terrence Malick Takes Us To The Wonder

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Neil (Ben Affleck, left) and his old love Jane (Rachel McAdams, right).

There is no other director like Terrence Malick. Granted, you could probably say that about pretty much every other filmmaker out there. The American director, however, remains a peculiar case. After all, we’re talking about an eccentric, reclusive artist who deliberately stepped away from the limelight and the Hollywood industry after a really promising debut, Badlands, and an equally fascinating sophomore effort, Days Of Heaven, before finally resurfacing with the anti-war movie The Thin Red Line and reaping a whopping seven Oscar bids.

By his standards, Terrence Malick has been really active in recent years. To The Wonder is his third new work in the last eight years. Before its premiere at the Venice Film Festival 2012, everybody was curious whether the director would be able to keep his lofty standards or if the movie would fail to deliver. At the time, only slightly more than a year had passed since the release of his sixth feature, the Academy Award-nominated The Tree Of Life. His seventh film failed to impress the test audiences at the festival and was even greeted by loud boos. Now To The Wonder is finally here for all the world to see and form a view.

American Neil (Ben Affleck) and Ukraine-born Marina (Olga Kurylenko) have just fallen in love. Together, they live on the picturesque French island of Mont Saint-Michel, often dubbed ‘the wonder of the Western world.’ He is a failed writer who has abandoned the United States in search of a better life in Europe, leaving behind several unhappy affairs. Whenever Neil looks into the eyes of his new sweetheart Marina, he is sure that he has finally found the love of his life. She is a gorgeous but quiet woman with a special sense of humor, despite being a divorced single mother of a 10-year old daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline).

At age 16, Marina left Ukraine for Paris without any money. There, she met a Frenchman who later became Tatiana’s father but abandoned the two females two years later. Marina had to struggle hard to keep the family afloat. Neil finally resurrects her by pulling her out of her miserable and unhappy existence. He gives her new hope for a better future. A couple of years later, they live in a small Oklahoma town near the place Neil grew up in. When he comes across Jane (Rachel McAdams), a girl from his hometown, a long-extinct romance is rekindled. Neil’s relationship with Marina begins to totter. The struggling Catholic priest Quintana (Javier Bardem) gives the Ukrainian woman some much-needed support.

Originally, Terrence Malick wanted Christian Bale to play Neil. When the Batman Begins star dropped out of the project, the filmmaker turned to Ben Affleck for To The Wonder instead. As much as everybody seems to be enamored with him these days because of his directorial work on Argo, Ben Affleck is a curious choice for this movie. On first glance, he appears to be totally out of place alongside the charming and balletic Olga Kurylenko. They make an odd couple. His acting is wooden, and the best word to describe Neil is probably ‘clumsy.’ Sometimes you wonder whether that was a deliberate decision or if Ben Affleck just doesn’t know any better.

Then again, to a certain degree, it all makes sense in the grand scheme of Terrence Malick’s design for To The Wonder. Despite his attempts to be happy with the lovely Marina, our American protagonist feels more at home, more at ease when he finally sees Jane again after all these years. The meeting really puts his intercultural relationship to the test, and Neil becomes cool and indifferent toward his European partner. While she tries to remain positive, even as she is far away from everything and everyone she knows, his distant ways make it obvious just how poles apart Marina and Neil really are.

As this year’s Oscars darling, Ben Affleck as Neil may receive formal top billing, but Olga Kurylenko is the true star of To The Wonder. Her Marina is by far the most interesting character in the whole film. She’s a graceful but pensive heroine from a classic Russian novel, a modern Anna Karenina transplanted into the ‘Wild West.’ There are some striking parallels that go far beyond both being separated from their kid(s) and each struggling to choose between her husband and her lover. According to Olga Kurylenko, Terrence Malick made her revisit Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov to prepare for the role – and it shows.

The rural Oklahoma is a world that Terrence Malick is much more familiar with than the European flair of Paris and Mont Saint-Michel. He has always had a soft spot for the American Midwest, dating back to his early movies. The vast open spaces evoke the old idea of the United States as the ‘promised land’ – only that, as in so many cases, it doesn’t really hold true for Marina. If anything, Oklahoma (for the most part) turns out to be the Badlands from Terrence Malick’s debut for our European heroine. The deserted backyard of her and Neil’s house reflects her inner emptiness.

Upon their first arrival in America, both Marina and particularly her daughter Tatyana are initially enchanted by the country. They dance and are generally joyful. It soon goes to show, however, that something’s missing in the United States. When they return to Europe, at least the younger Russian feels relieved – only that Marina’s whole life seems to go to pieces in Paris, as if it were an extension of her first Oklahoma experience. At this point, it looks as if she doesn’t really belong anywhere anymore, and America, though perfectly alien to her, appears to be more of a home than France.

Neil and Marina come from different worlds. Despite the fact that they seem to become closer during some stages of To The Wonder, they always remain worlds apart. The landscape around them reflects that as well. Terrence Malick uses gorgeous shots and camera angles of the nature that would make Soviet master Andrei Tarkovsky proud. There is an almost metaphysical presence to these images the American filmmaker is so famous for, so that the environment almost becomes the (arguably) most important player of the impressive acting ensemble in the movie.

In To The Wonder, Terrence Malick fortunately doesn’t overdo it with his musings about life, existence, and the universe the way he did in The Tree Of Life with his overlong exposition. Naturally, his latest opus is as spiritual as his previous work. It comes with the territory, and people who know Terrence Malick’s other films should already know what to expect. Shots that don’t seem to have a direct relation to the movie itself on first glance, such as the dinosaurs in The Tree Of Life, however, are by and large absent from To The Wonder. The director sparsely uses them. If anything, these sequences are few and far between.

That’s not to say that Terrence Malick doesn’t give us his regular topics of spirituality, existentiality, and religion in his latest opus. It’s all there, and the piety angle is particularly obvious. Javier Bardem as the struggling priest Quintana would probably be right at home with some of the Catholic actual clergymen who have agonized over some of the decisions by the Vatican in recent years. He sees both the misery and beauty of modern Oklahoma on a daily basis. Yet he frequently seems to wonder about God’s grand plan and why he even continues to bother caring.

Under Terrence Malick’s direction, we witness the award-winning Spaniard in a much more subdued role than in some of his more career-defining parts as a villain in No Country For Old Men and Skyfall. It’s a very different approach from what most international audiences might be used to from Javier Bardem, but it works, in its own strange way. Both Quintana and Marina struggle in those surroundings for diverse reasons. To a certain degree it feels, however, as if each of them was transplanted into this harsh but at the same time breaktaking environment, as if they were foreign bodies who really didn’t belong there.

As usual, Terrence Malick doesn’t use a conventional narrative in To The Wonder. It’s probably fair to say that the movie is more of a cinematic ballet of sorts than an ‘ordinary’ drama or failed romance. The director has long fallen in love with the symphonic form and the plan to arrange his films in movements or episodes rather than the classical act-based Hollywood structures. The Tree Of Life was a first step in that direction, and in To The Wonder, Terrence Malick seems to come closer to perfecting the method. The emotional ups and downs of the characters appear to have more in common with music than with a ‘normal’ story.

Though not exceedingly rapid, the movie is both fluid and rhythmic. It feels as if To The Wonder is more of a dance than anything else, with the graceful Olga Kurylenko constantly pirouetting through the rather secluded world of the film and a pair of ballet shoes of all things serving as recurring motif in this universe. Neither of the characters is a hoofer, however, especially not the lumbering Neil and the equally stolid priest – although Marina comes close. Yet To The Wonder has all the makings of a dance. Without having to resort to breakneck editing, the movie is constantly in motion, as the characters appear to be circling around each other all the time without ever truly achieving long-lasting intimacy.

When all is said and done, the film probably leaves you asking more questions than at the beginning. What exactly is it? Should we file it under ‘melodrama’ or ‘minimalist work of art’? Terrence Malick typically leaves you looking for answers, and To The Wonder makes no exception in this regard. It has all the trademarks of his works – gorgeous cinematography, sparse dialog, usually provided in voiceover, and an atypical structure. Knowing the enigmatic director, we probably shouldn’t even try classifying it. Referring to music, maybe we can call it a kind of ‘Gutter Ballet’ or ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony,’ despite the fact that none of these categorizations seem too fitting altogether.

In the end, To The Wonder remains a thoughtful piece of moviemaking that’s stunning to look at but it’s certainly not for everybody. Although not as opulent as his previous films, it makes a great addition to Terrence Malick’s body of work as he appears to be inching closer to perfecting his cinematic vision at a comparably breathtaking pace. Moreover, after starring in a number of (sometimes high-profile) projects that criminally underused her acting talents, it finally gives Olga Kurylenko the long-deserved chance to shine as more than a generic damsel in distress.

Seen at Cinema Kinos, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, on 18 June, 2013.