Terrence Malick, as unconventional, esoteric and spiritual as ever, has created an ocean of love in "To the Wonder," filling it with calm seas, treacherous storms, incredible beauty and a god who watches over it all.
Love in all its many facets is distilled and dissected by the writer/director from first flame to dying embers, between couples and between mankind and God. There is no new ground, really, the distinction is in the way Malick covers it with glorious imagery, symphonies of sound, a cacophony of moods.
Beyond his experiential style, the filmmaker is catholic in his approach — universal in the way he traces the ebb and flow of feelings, and specific, as in the Roman Catholic Church specific, when he moves into the spiritual realm.
Between the style and the substance, it is likely to leave some loving the film, others loathing it, probably for many of the same reasons.
I found it to be some kind of wonderful, flaws and all. This is one to be taken in like meditation. Clear the mind and let what is in front of you wash over you. Save the contemplation for later.
When later does arrive, Malick, who is as much a philosopher as filmmaker, has left a lot to consider, though the idea that love is worth whatever price is never in question.
"To the Wonder" begins with the very-much-in-love Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), blissfully wandering around Mont St. Michel, the French island off the Normandy coast where for six centuries monks have lived in solitude, preferring to commune with God rather than man. It is an effective way to set the stage for a reflection of love in the spiritual and real-world sense.
Working with cinematographer and frequent collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, Malick bathes the film in light. The ancient stone walls of the monastery rest within a pastoral countryside, sunlight streams down, the lens looks up toward an infinite sky.
There is virtually no dialogue. Visuals do the heavy lifting of telling the story. There is tenderness, for instance, in the way Neil and Marina touch, merging and separating effortlessly to make room for Marina's daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline). A train ride captures the playful teasing of early romance and is among the film's most acrobatic and engaging.
The words, mostly through voice-over from Marina, are poetic — a stream of thoughts about emotion, love and need.
The movie rests on Neil's conflicted feelings for Marina and Tatiana: Strong enough that he brings them back to his Oklahoma home, part of a newly carved suburban sprawl. Not strong enough to keep them when Marina's visa expires, or to survive the attraction of an old flame, Jane (Rachel McAdams).
Interwoven with the euphoria and friction that accompanies Neil's ever-shifting affections is another of Malick's frequent themes — the way in which people and nature interact, sometimes to devastating effect. He's made Neil an environment inspector, his hard hat on and clipboard gripped as he steps through the muck left by oil rigs, the ones that look like praying mantises slowing bowing and raising their heads. The imagery is provocative, but it is a weak thread that never comes to much.
More substantial is the movie's religious streak, which unfolds at the local parish around Father Quintana. Portrayed by a meditative Javier Bardem, the priest is constantly praying as well, trying to sort out what God requires of us. Like the monks on Mont St. Michel, he seems far more comfortable in his conversations with God than with his beleaguered flock. Marina is one of them.
McAdams' Jane is an old friend of Neil's who turns up midway through to test his emotional connection to Marina. They become entangled just as he and Marina seem increasingly disengaged. But love brings peace to no one in "To the Wonder," even as Neil and Marina reconnect over time. Contentment eludes them.
Much of Affleck's recent work — in front of and behind the camera — has been excellent, the Oscar-winning "Argo" especially. But this is not one of his best turns. The actor is solid in the way that Neil should be. But when Neil's feelings waver — in the pulling away from Marina, Tatiana, Jane — there is a discomfort that doesn't ring as true as it should.
Kurylenko and McAdams are luminous as they bask in the glow of love when it is warm, and full of angst when it goes cold. And young Tatiana Chiline is just a delight. The camera loves the women, lingering, perhaps a little too long as they spin and dance through open fields of grains and grasses and flowers.
Compared with the filmmaker's towering "Tree of Life," which brought Malick his third Oscar nomination for his examination of our very existence, "To the Wonder" is a more intimate film. It is less ambitious as well, with its focus on a single emotion. In the end, like love itself, "To the Wonder" is an imperfect thing, yet I wouldn't have missed the experience for the world.
'To the Wonder'
MPAA rating: R for some sexuality/nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Playing: In selected theaters