Neil (Ben Affleck) is an American traveling in Europe who meets and falls in love with Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a Ukrainian divorcée who is raising her 10-year-old daughter Tatiana in Paris. The lovers travel to Mont St. Michel, the island abbey off the coast of Normandy, basking in the wonder of their newfound romance. Neil makes a commitment to Marina, inviting her to relocate to his native Oklahoma with Tatiana. He takes a job as an environmental inspector and Marina settles into her new life in America with passion and vigor. After a holding pattern, their relationship cools. Marina finds solace in the company of another exile, the Catholic priest Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who is undergoing a crisis of faith. Work pressures and increasing doubt pull Neil further apart from Marina, who returns to France with Tatiana when her visa expires. Neil reconnects with Jane (Rachel McAdams), an old flame. They fall in love until Neil learns that Marina has fallen on hard times. ...Written by
Explain nothing, show everything. A great ethereal love story.
Some people say that film is like a language, but that is not exactly right, it is like language itself, and just as there are different languages, there are different cinemas. It seems to me that, in his last two films, Terrence Malick has been creating a very special type of cinema, that had hitherto existed only in an embryonic form. While most films have maybe 50-100 scenes, replete with dialogue and action, Malick's new cinema (MNC) has over twice that number of scenes, but they are fragmentary and consist of only the essence of meaning that was in a scene that would normally have been much longer. This can be sometimes several minutes or only a couple of brief shots.
Last evening I drove the 25 miles to see the early performance of 'To the Wonder'. I did that with the intention of returning to write this review while the film was still fresh in my mind. But after it I was so drained that I couldn't write a summary, let alone a review. At the current (late) stage in my life, what interests me most about the cinema is its limits. How far can the cinema go, and what exactly is a film?
Given the above, Terrence Malick is evidently the man for me, and I am convinced that 'The Tree of Life' is among the five greatest works of this greatest of the arts. So, after a masterpiece 30 years in the gestation and three + in the creation, how would Malick fare with a film relatively thrown together in a year or so?
On the face of it, this is a story of the relationship which starts in Paris between an American (environmentalist?), Neil, and an otherworldly French woman (Marina). When they return to mid-west America, Marina suffers from a sense of dislocation made greater when he daughter decides to go and live with her father in France.
But Malick seems much less interested in the *events* which he depicts than in expressing the feelings of the characters. Just the same way that 'The Tree of Life' was an *impression* of childhood, rather than the story of a childhood, 'To the Wonder' is an impression of a love affair, rather than its story. This is cinema infused in every shot with Heidegger's *dasein*. The logic of Malick's cinema is to *perfectly* catch the moment, and in doing so extract the truth of the experience. Hence, for Malick, a film story, is simply an assembly of 'essences'. These essences stay in the mind to thrill and haunt us.
There have been other examples of great filmmakers who have made films exploring the cinema's intimate connection with mental processes - Resnais and Bunuel come immediately to mind. But with Malick, it seems, the cinema's similarity to the mental processes of memory, dream and conjecture, have ignited a wildfire of creativity that has advanced the film art at a greater pace than has occurred since the sixties.
Here I have to admit to being only at the beginning of being able to appreciate what seems to be dizzying complexities in the film. My French is not up to totally understanding much of Marina's dialogue which, as I am in France, was not translated in the subtitles, so I am sure I have missed an entire dimension of the film. But Olga Kurylenko's performance is so magnificent, that this 'comprehension gap' didn't seem a problem.
Then there is the obvious question of the film's theme. Love, the very 'different' nature of women, dislocation in the physical, emotional and cultural senses - these are all up there writ large. But they are mixed with a nagging worry that, to return to my earlier concern, Malick has stretched the cinema to its limits, but sometimes, maybe beyond them. I do not think of myself as stupid, but I found great difficulty in grasping the relevance of certain shots or scenes. I rest convinced, however that this is another example of a film that it is necessary to watch dozens of times to find all of the poetic and meaningful connections.
I have great sympathy with those who go to the cinema wanting to be told a great story in the clearest manner possible. That is honourable and reasonable, but it is not the only experience that the cinema, this great and wonderful art of the cinema, can give. And it is certainly NOT the case that films that don't take the more prosaic approach are pretentious, meaningless or boring. 'To the Wonder' is to popular cinema what lyric poetry is to airport novels. So, if that is all you are looking for, it is best to avoid Malick's film.
But for those of us who know that beyond the sky is the limit for great cinema, Malick and MNC is the route to the stars, and 'To the Wonder' is a step, if a somewhat halting one, along that route.
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