Friday, April 12, 2013

Memories in the Present Tense: Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder”

“Life’s a dream,” remarks one character to another in Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, which opens today in theaters. As is this hypnotic film, which functions more as a sensory experience than a conventionally plotted tale of love found and lost. It is not standard multiplex fare, but you can expect nothing less from the filmmaker who last gave us the love-it-or-hate-it masterwork Tree of Life.

To the Wonder is overwhelming in the way few films are these days. Its plotting is minimal, but its visuals are a feast — and not in the green-screen manner of so many contemporary blockbusters. Malick used CGI in Tree of Life, but one can’t imagine him releasing a 3-D film — although his images often feel as if they may burst from the screen.

So what is the film’s plot? It concerns an American environmental inspector (Ben Affleck) who falls in love with a Ukrainian woman living in Paris (Olga Kurylenko) and brings her back to his Oklahoma hometown (the real town of Bartlesville). The couple break up, then get back together and begin to seriously wonder about their compatibility. In the meantime, the local priest (Javier Bardem) suffers a crisis of faith as he tends to the poor and sick in his community.

But, as in Tree of Life, the storyline is not the main ingredient here. Malick offers us naked emotions on screen — joy, anger, sorrow, love, betrayal — and the fact that he includes flashback images throughout clearly means the film is meant to function as a series of memories or, more accurately, as a dream.

The exception to this is Bardem’s storyline, which adds a glint of reality to the proceedings. Since his perfect first film Badlands (the new Criterion of which I reviewed recently here), Malick has always had his locations function as “characters” in his films, and here he sketches Bartlesville as a beautiful if lonely suburb — but then Bardem’s plotline explores the “other side of the tracks” where the poor, the disabled, and the addicted live. Jarring images of real residents from the Bartlesvillle vicinity force the viewer to sporadically wake from the “dream” of Affleck and Kurylenko‘s relationship.

From its ornate title onward, To the Wonder is an exercise in disjunction that produces a primal emotional response in the viewer (thus the love-it-or-hate-it status). The visuals are so kinetic and gorgeously composed, and the editing — worked on by no less than five editors — is so fluid that the film creates its own sense of time and space. It is ultimately “about” emotion and memory and what’s left when a romance goes sour.

Malick has both literary and painterly instincts — here his literary side (which leans more towards poetry than fiction) is represented by a nearly nonstop voiceover narration in French by Kurylenko, with Bardem’s character contributing his reflections in Spanish and Affleck supplying a few lines in English. To add to the linguistic stew, out of a clear blue sky (and back into it) Kurylenko befriends a young Italian woman who encourages her to flee Oklahoma, all in Italian.

The voiceover keeps the film from being a silent picture, because although the characters do speak to each other, Malick rarely lets us hear both sides of a conversation — and Affleck and Kurylenko, when heard in fragments of conversation, are both speaking their native languages to each other.

One can readily see an avid fan of multiplex romances tuning out on To the Wonder for all the reasons that fans of arthouse cinema will be drawn to it. The film contains two idyllic-looking Hollywood stars — Affleck and Rachel McAdams — who are utilized for their looks rather than their acting ability. Malick’s films have contained great performances, but they have also contained plenty of actors who are “figures in a landscape.”

Those who want a straightforward love story will be turned off or even irritated by Kurylenko’s sometimes overripe musings in the voiceover narration (“Where are we when we’re there?”) and her character’s childlike giddiness when happy and petulant behavior when mad — but, again, these are “effects” (not fx) that Malick uses in the manner of control-freak filmmakers like Kubrick — a director he’s often compared to — and Bresson and Dreyer.

Those last-mentioned cinematic masters are excellent points of reference here, because Malick injects a note of (Paul Schrader’s term for Bresson, Dreyer, and Ozu) “transcendence” into both plotlines. The lovers are happy and blissful in natural surroundings, but miserable in the closed confines of their house (which always has a bare minimum of furniture — as in both Bresson and Dreyer). In addition to a sequence where Affleck refuses to pray with his temporary lover McAdams (who’s the film only “certain” Christian), we have the Bardem plotline, which plays like a modern, even grimmer take on Père Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest.

Those who liked Tree of Life — I was overwhelmed by it and needed several days to process what I’d seen — will embrace To the Wonder. For those who are uncertain about the new film, just consider the prospect of seeing a true “emotion picture," a work that is visually charged — at times remote in meaning, but exquisite in execution and absolutely wrenching on a visual level.

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