TORONTO--The negativity that accompanied Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder” at the Venice Film Festival last week was never likely to travel wholesale to Toronto, not with audiences here among the more generous in festivaldom.
Still, when it landed on these shores Monday night, the reaction to the auteur’s romantic drama, his follow-up to last season’s best picture nominee “The Tree of Life” and first-ever contemporary piece, was restrained to say the least.
Tepid applause followed the screening at the Princess of Wales theatre, a contrast to enthusiastic clapping that follows a great many screenings at this festival. Some filmgoers could be heard exhaling exasperatedly when an apparent ending proved to be false, while others scratched their heads as they spilled out of the theater.
“It was…artistic?” one festivalgoer said. “Too artistic,” sneered a second. “Yeah, you’re right,” the first responded.
The movie, which stars Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams, follows a stoic all-American man named Neil (Ben Affleck) who falls in love with a beautiful Parisienne single mother named Marina (Kurylenko) while traveling in France, moving her to his Oklahoma small town, where they have a tempestuous romance.
Neil also has yearnings for a hometown sweetheart with whom he has had an on-again-off-again relationship (McAdams). (The story is believed to be inspired in part by Malick's own life.) Javier Bardem co-stars as a priest seeking spiritual fulfillment in a church in the same Oklahoma town, exploring some of the spiritual questions Malick investigated in “The Tree of Life.”
There is very little dialogue in "To the Wonder"; Malick tells his story with images and music. (A confession of infidelity, for instance, contains only a voice-overed ”Forgive me” and an aggressive action in reply.) Kurylenko, gamely taking the stage with McAdams after the screening in lieu of the absent Malick, said that there were a lot of dialogue-heavy scenes that didn’t make the final cut—hours of them, in fact.
“To The Wonder” came in without distribution and, if the reaction in the room is any indication, seemed destined to remain without a major buyer, at least for the time being.
Whether all this dissing was deserved is another question. There is an over-the-top earnestness to the proceedings that leave it open to criticism. On others scores, the reaction is puzzling. “Wonder” has a more conventional narrative structure than “Tree of Life,” which earned plenty of plaudits. And if the details of scenes aren’t explicated, there’s certainly a pretty clear movement form one scene to the next. It exhibits far more of a causal series of events than “Tree.”
And in some instances the criticism seems downright off-base. The buzz in the room and from some reviewer was that Malick screwed up by not following through on scenes or offering more conversation in them.
But the decision to tell the story by saying little and implying a lot is conscious. It is, also, often effective. Malick wants to provide the outlines and let us fill in the spaces between, which one easily can, with either imagined details of the onscreen couple’s lives or real details from our own.
Even with the limited exposition, Malick has plenty on his mind, addressing love and trust and unmet expectations. As Kurylenko said after the screening “It’s true in life [too] that what you want to achieve you don’t necessarily achieve.” (More from her and McAdams shortly.)
After all the buzz for “Tree” last year, it was inevitable that there would be a backlash to Malick’s follow-up film, especially one that came so quickly. And “Wonder,” with its formal experimentation, supplies backlash fodder to those interested in looking for it. Fortunately it also supplies plenty of material for thought and feeling too.