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Terrence Malick’s wonderfully infuriating ‘To the Wonder’

The sound of silence: Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko on the road to Mont Saint-Michel in Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder.”
The sound of silence: Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko on the road to Mont Saint-Michel in Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder.”
Magnolia Pictures

To the Wonder

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What to make of “To the Wonder”?

It starts with a rapturous frenzy of ecstatic cinema, in which clearly in love lovers Neil (Ben Affleck), a quiet American, and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a Parisian transplant from the Ukraine, travel to the shores of Mont Saint-Michel, off the coast of Normandy. Shot by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki in a combination of 35 mm and digital—the latter of which resembles a cross between Super 8 and a cell phone camera—it’s invigorating filmmaking of the highest order.

Their love quickly wilts when they move with her 10-year-old daughter to the prairies of Oklahoma, where Neil works in the oil fields as an environmental inspector and Marina seemingly spends all her time pirouetting through amber waves of grain—kind of like Sissy Spacek in the opening scene of “Badlands,” only without the baton or any real reason for high-stepping.

Terrence Malick, directing just his sixth film in 40 years (but his second in the past two years), films the unraveling of their love affair with a nearly complete absence of dialogue, relying instead on roving handheld camera shots that bob and weave with the actors, like a referee in a prizefight. It’s as if Malick, through Godardian jump cuts, tried to make a film composed almost exclusively of the moments of silence in everyday life, when conversation stops and humans interact through purely sensory means.

In that sense, it’s perhaps the most radical work of anti-narrative since Alain Resnais’ “Last Year at Marienbad,” which reduced human interaction to a series of enigmatic gestures and dreamlike unreality.

But while Resnais was content to turn his characters into mechanical drones for the sake of modernist experiment, Malick tries to have it both ways—to dispense with the conventions of traditional storytelling while also structuring the film around the two basic questions that pop songwriters have been grappling with since the Tin Pan Alley days: Where does love come from, and where does it go?

Those are comfortably unsolvable mysteries, yet some of the unanswered questions that are left dangling in “To the Wonder” are maddening.

For example, what’s the deal with Neil? Who is this guy? And why is he so unhappy with his highly respectable job, his comfortable house and his beautiful girlfriend?

We never find out, because aside from the occasional voiceover, the amount of lines Malick gives Affleck to say in a nearly two hour movie could fit on a cocktail napkin.

Even more so than Malick’s second feature, “Days of Heaven,” which contained ample allusions to F.W. Murnau’s “Sunrise” and “City Girl” and discarded dialogue scenes en masse in the editing room, “To the Wonder” is a clear attempt to re-introduce the language of silent cinema into the vocabulary of modern sound film.

The problem is that while “Days of Heaven” was shaped during postproduction into a compact narrative, “To the Wonder” suffers from insufferably tedious scenes of Marina and Neil frolicking in hay fields or cavorting in the bedroom like first-year acting students experimenting with modern dance.

There’s also the problem of the Rachel McAdams character, Neil’s old flame who wanders back into his life when Marina’s visa expires and she returns to Paris. She appears in the film under the thinnest of pretenses and disappears almost as suddenly, making one wonder if Malick didn’t consider cutting her from the film altogether, as reportedly happened to Rachel Weisz, Jessica Chastain and Amanda Peet.

The best scenes involve Javier Bardem as a Catholic priest who begins to question his faith in the face of God’s deafening silence. Though he shares only one scene with Neil, Malick conflates the absence of God in Father Quintana’s life with the absence of romantic love in Neil’s—thus drawing autobiographical parallel between the Malick who married and divorced a Frenchwoman, then married his high school sweetheart, and the Malick who was raised a devout Episcopalian, embraced the philosophy of Heidegger while a Harvard undergrad, then came full circle in 2011 with “The Tree of Life,” which recast the Heideggerian ontology of “Badlands” through the lens of revisionist Christianity.

If “To the Wonder” ultimately fails where “The Tree of Life” succeeded, it’s not due to its philosophical position—which remains essentially unchanged—but because it plays as a succession of intellectual sketches rather than a fully realized vision.

Die-hard Malick fans will still eat it up, but the casual moviegoer encountering his singular cinema for the first time will be left wondering what the big deal is.

“To the Wonder” played a one-night engagement at Burlington’s Main Street Landing on June 20, as part of the Burlington Film Society’s monthly contemporary film series. It will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on August 6.

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