Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams in "To The Wonder."
To The Wonder
Terrence Malick can guide us to the "Wonder," the magnificent Abbaye du Mont-Saint-Michel situated on a tidal island off France's Normandy coast, but he cannot guarantee his cinematic pilgrims a transcendent experience.
Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's rapturous images, paired with a litany of whispered voiceovers, don't build a staircase to heaven. Nor do the celestial musical selections of Bach, Wagner, Berlioz and Gorecki. You don't have to understand the intricacies of reception theory to realize that what profoundly moves a filmmaker may induce utter boredom in a viewer. Malick's follow-up to "The Tree of Life" is the most impressionistic -- and most intolerable -- film of his 40-year career.
The shards of a story must be pieced together. An unnamed single Parisian mother (Olga Kurylenko of "Quantum of Solace") and an unnamed American (Ben Affleck) have fallen deeply in love. Her inner voice speaks softly about melting into the eternal night and being brought back to life by him, while enchanted footage of the City of Light and Mont-Saint-Michel graces the screen. She twirls and prances, whether in the Tuileries Gardens or a grocery store. And he serves as a silent, decorative object, a square-jawed enigma who asks the free-spirited woman and her 10-year-old daughter (Tatiana Chiline) to live with him in the flatlands of Oklahoma.
Eventually the non-communicative, emotionally unavailable man explodes in flashes of anger, and she stops having fun wearing lampshades on her head and jumping on the bed. Their relationship reeks of contamination, as poisoned as the nearby land oozing with industrial toxins. Why? Who knows and who cares?
Compounding feelings of loss and aloneness, Javier Bardem glides into America's heartland as a Spanish priest undergoing a crisis of faith while ministering to the poor and the poor souls. He yearns to experience God as he once did. But God remains as silent as in an Ingmar Bergman film. Rachel McAdams also appears briefly, amidst fields of grain and bison, as a renewed love interest for Affleck's flat character.
As the philosopher-poet of American cinema, Malick repeatedly poses the same queries about love, loss and spirituality without providing any insight. His signature technique of using subjective voice-overs to deliver semi-coherent fragments of the characters' thoughts fails to illuminate the human condition. Even when paired with fleeting flashbacks or his visual preoccupation with nature, the experiment in form tends to frame everything in unanswered questions.
Although a gifted maverick, Malick seems lost in personal reveries. As a result, "To the Wonder" functions as an obstacle rather than a bridge from Earth to heaven, from human malaise to a state of grace.
Rated R for nudity and some sexuality. In English and French, Spanish and Italian with English subtitles. One hour, 52 minutes.
- Susan Tavernetti