At 112 minutes To the Wonder (2013), Malick’s shortest film since Days of Heaven, might be the longest experimental art film of all times. And, like in the case of every other Malick film, it is not for everyone. For spectators who expect or are used to the films of artistically timid era, this film might be dull and even seen as a hard work. For those who are, like me, in tune and on the same page as Malick, it is truly a wonder.
Three characters are at the core of the story: Neal (Ben Affleck), the archetypal American man, firm, strong, down to earth, like those played by Penn and Pitt in Tree of Life (2011); Marina (Olga Kurylenko), French woman Neil falls madly in love with, the force of nature and free spirit of vast emotional landscapes; and Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) who more or less serves as the meta-narrator of the story. Film opens in Paris but within first ten minutes we find ourselves in a small town in Neil’s native Oklahoma where he had taken Marina and her daughter to live with him. In the film, as in Malick’s life, Marina doesn’t go through this transition – from Paris to American heartland – easily. On top of that, there is something wrong with the American soil itself for it is toxic, literally as well as figuratively, which prevents Marina from implanting, growing and blooming. Instead, she becomes restless, unhappy and lost. In a brief interlude, she goes back to her once-delightful Paris only to find it “dreadful” this time around, which ultimately forces her to go back to the U.S. and Neil, this time without her daughter. While Marina is away, however, Neil re-encounters Jane (Rachel McAdams), his high school sweetheart, again following Malick’s biography. Her role is rather small but a pivotal one for she counters Marina’s European charm and free-spirited personality with her all-American-ranch-girl character. She is everything Marina is not. And vice versa. And although Jane is the safer choice, in every possible way, Neil decides to break things off, perhaps knowing or feeling that Marina will eventually come back to him. And she does. The two get married but something is still missing.
To the Wonder is ultimately a story of love and longing. In many ways it resembles Tree of Life yet it is smaller, more modest in scale. It looks and feels, in its entirety, as some kind of unframed flashback, remembered feeling, a memory. There is no narrative in a conventional sense because it is not about telling the story as much as it is about feeling it. Furthermore, Marina’s character is always in motion. At first, it felt like an odd choice, the one that made me restless and perhaps it even annoyed me. Why is she always on the move? How can you walk dancing? Or why would you prance and crawl through the wheat? In Ebert’s last review I read how Malick apparently instructed the cast to “never stop moving…Things have to just grow into something else and transcend from one thing into another and it’s like constant movement and dance, choreography….It’s more of a dance, performance.” Once you stop looking for any logical explanation for the act and start seeing the logic of the act itself everything becomes clear and you realize that their constant movement, Marina’s in particular, hers more than others, is what makes this film such a treat. Nothing else would ever work.
I felt deeply connected to it. I felt Malick knows me in all the ways many will never do.
“He is killing me!” Marina yells as she runs out of the house and into the street. Strong feelings make Neil uneasy.
He doesn’t know how to love her yet she is all he wants, all he needs.
He is madly and profoundly in love with her yet he is cold, distant and unable to reciprocate.
But above all, he is unable to keep her alive. She doesn’t die. Not physically, that is. But she doesn’t live either. And this is the core problem of their passionate, troubling relationship. Neil is puzzled with the question as to how to keep up with raw life without destroying all what you found beautiful about it, what made you fall in love with it, in the first place? This is harming her. His emotional impenetrability is harming her. Unintentionally, yes, but in his unwillingness to let go, she becomes the victim of invisible, albeit very tangible, abuse. [Her] mental pain is visceral and therefor, it runs deeper, and it harms thousand times more than the physical one will ever do. This is the problem Neil is not able to grasp or understand, simply because he doesn’t know better – his emotions are tamed and not as wild. “Show me how to love you.” She pleads in vain. In vain, because even Neil oesn’t have the answer to that question. He doesn’t know what he wants. He believes he wants her but her is not what he sees, not the real her, that is. What he wants is for her to become Jane, something she can never truly be and that much is certain. In her futile attempt to escape this prison his blindness has created for them, she cheats on him. An insignificant day of sex with a person she doesn’t really know but feels drawn or connected to, is her only possible way out before her tender heart grows harder. Where Neil failed, Marina succeeded. With this act she liberated them both. This was the only possible happy ending and the only clean way out for this deeply out-of-sync couple.
Who are these people, what do they do, what motivates them…this things are not of our concern. To the Wonder is not about its characters but rather about what they feel and how they are dealing with these emotions. Their anonymity is what prevents us from seeing them as human beings, which consequently leads us into the state in which we can never truly know them or love them for that matter. And in doing so, Malick elevates the film to the status of “metaphysical inquiry”.
Many will not appreciate this film, of that I am sure. They will be dissatisfied with the film that “would rather evoke than supply”. I understand that, Ebert understood that and he thought Terence Malick understands that, too. But for those who do look beneath astonishing surface, it will truly be a wonder.
Text written by: Monika Ponjavic
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