Review: To the Wonder (Malick, 2012)

Still from the movie To the Wonder

Glancing at a couple of screenshots and being ignorant of who Terrence Malick was, I had woefully misguided expectations for this film. I’m visiting my parents in Washington right now, so, my husband having returned to California, I thought I’d watch a romantic drama with my mom. Seeing Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams in the credits, I anticipated enjoying a cheap but pleasantly swooning love story a la The Notebook or somesuch. Well.

For those who don’t already know, Terrence Malick is acclaimed director of The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life and is generally considered an experimental moviemaker. His films are known for their stunning and natural cinematography as well as philosophical voiceovers, both of which are also generously exhibited in To the Wonder. Not expecting this kind of narrative style, I at first found the pacing slow, almost plodding, and the voiceovers overdone, abstract to the point of meaninglessness.

Plot is not an important component of this film. What we end up discovering about the characters is vague; at the same time, the details seem oddly unimportant. Nick (Affleck) and a Frenchwoman Marina (Olga Kurylenko) enter into a playful, passionate, idyllic romance in Paris. Marina and her young child Tatiana return to the U.S. with Nick and move into his empty house in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Soon, however, fissures develop in their relationship, and another woman from Nick’s past, Jane (McAdams), comes on the scene. There is also a Catholic priest (Javier Bardem) who enters into the narrative at first obliquely, as Marina’s confessor, but then gradually gains more screen time. That is the essence of the plot.

All four central characters–Nick, Marina, Jane, and Father Quintana–are granted voiceovers that peel away some of the narrative’s opaqueness. Marina and Father Quintana’s are the most expansive, dealing primarily with the subject of love: romantic love, in Marina’s case, and spiritual love in Father Quintana’s. Perhaps because romantic love has itself become a trite subject, and Marina’s words the tritest expressions of that already trite love, Father Quintana’s clipped philosophical wonderings interested me much more, though his character seems more incidental to the narrative. Well, no matter, the narrative is loose, so why not? Characters wander in and out, rarely resurrected.

According to RogerEbert.com, Ebert’s review of To the Wonder was the last he filed before he passed away. He gives To the Wonder three-and-a-half stars and is, with a few qualifications, strongly positive on the film. I have more reservations, less to do with the movie’s style and more to do with Marina, whose antics I found ridiculous. She reminded me of an extremely self-observant teenager in love with the new effects of her body on men. In fact, her voiceovers (translated from the French) recalled to mind the types of things adolescent girls write in their unicorn-decorated journals, dreaming of a grand, imprecise love. It is not, I think, Kurylenko’s fault. At the very least, Malick is complicit: the way the camera lingers repeatedly on her flouncing and jumping and teasing and coy smiling grows wearisome–the same looks (and sometimes the same scenes) over and over again. Boring! Not luxuriant, not beautiful, just boring! I had to hold myself back from repeatedly checking how much time there was left in the movie. I know, I know, it is a highly stylized film, not meant to be strictly realistic in the conventional sense of the word. Still, those limits should be stretched to good effect and not wasted on this inane frippery. So think I, at least.

Nevertheless, I was glad to be introduced to Malick at last. Maybe I will check out The Tree of Life.

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