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As the summer of self-plagiarism comes to a close, add Terrence Malick to the list of those accused of this debatable crime: The auteur's quick follow-up to last year's The Tree of Life, To The Wonder, is a romance set in present-day Paris and rural America starring Ben Affleck as an American man who has relationships with a French single mother (Olga Kurylenko) and a local rancher (Rachel McAdams). The film literally and figuratively recycles material from that Cannes-winning, dinosaur-conjuring Best Picture nominee.
Malick cops to using actual footage from Life in the new film's credits, but I think the critics who allegedly booed Wonder in Venice last week, and/or the many members of the press who walked out of the Toronto screening I attended before the movie ended, were probably more aggrieved by Malick's unofficial self-appropriation.
To The Wonder is a film in which characters question their commitments to long-held beliefs in light of the lack of visible evidence of a higher power in the extremely secular world. And so it goes that the latter film repeats the earlier one's fondness for camerawork that mimics the view from a neck craned to the heavens, and frequent, spacey-deep voiceover rumination on what it feels like to feel feelings.
There's no question that these aesthetic traits tie Wonder back to The Tree of Life, and to some extent, every other Malick movie. But To The Wonder is also Malick's first feature to take place entirely in the present day, and what's fascinating about it are the ways in which Malick is able to circle his usual textual and visual themes and revitalize them in ah unmistakably contemporary context.
The film begins with a montage of brightly saturated, high-contrast cellphone videos documenting the early days of a relationship between Marina (Kurylenko) and the American man played by Affleck (the credits say his name is “Neil” but I don't recall that ever being said aloud). He convinces Marina and her 10 year-old daughter Tatiana to move in with him in Oklahoma, and at first, all is bliss, with Tatiana dreamily marveling at the cleanliness of an American supermarket, and all but insisting that her mom's boyfriend pop the question. Voiceover duties are shared between Marina and a priest played by Javier Bardem; she handles questions of faith in love and lust, while he takes care of the spiritual part of the equation. Though the priest is a peripheral presence in their lives, as he becomes increasingly disillusioned with his life's chosen line, so the clarity and purpose seems to fade from Marina and Neil's once all-consuming relationship.
When Marina's visa is up, she returns to France, and Neil starts spending time with Jane (McAdams), an old friend struggling to maintain a ranch that belonged to her ex-husband. This new relationship is as passionate as the first — maybe more so, in that its setting is the natural warmth of Jane's ranch, rather than Neil's weirdly empty home, which he seems to be permanently in the process of moving out of or into.
Then Marina comes back, and Neil breaks off with Jane to reunite with her, but it's different this time: uncertainty has slid in to replace delirium. Judging by a shot of their wedding, at which they have no guests, Neil and Marina's love makes them feel like the only two people in the universe, which is initially romantic, and then lonely.
Paradise is lost, and there's no going back — and Malick makes this clear by stressing that the world these characters live in is right here, right now. Neil's work, which has something to do with environmental inspection (perhaps, like Malick's own father, he's a geologist?) puts him in direct contact with the apparently disadvantaged residents of the area, as does the priest's ministry. In a highly elliptical film with almost no traditional dialogue scenes, these sequences, apparently involving “real” people, are shot and performed with almost documentary-style naturalism.
Malick's camera is so apt to swoon that when he switches into a mode resembling fly-on-the-wall observation, even if just briefly, it's like a bolt of lightning, throwing his vintage, trance-like romance sequences into sharp relief. The typical Malick film takes place in a dream of the past; this Malick film features characters who behave as though they live in a psychological space that predates the Fall of Man — but they don't. Their natural habitats are drive-throughs and pedestrian-free sidewalks. They're both creatures of this world, and distanced from it: They are members of the species that invented things like mega-supermarkets, that tamed and industrialized the natural world, and yet they can't conquer basic shit like fear and skepticism and desire.
More conventionally structured and modestly mounted than Malick's last film, To The Wonder is never as visually striking as Tree of Life, and Affleck's performance, which is almost silent, is never as dynamic as Brad Pitt's in that film. But his bland hunk beauty suits a character who seems to be solely defined by his inability to give others what they need from him. As far as we can tell, aside from his work, Neil's life is devoted to his literal chasing of women who whirl like dervishes and/or seem to float on air, to playing his part in relationships embodied by two extremes of action: with Marina, love is undulating in patches of sunshine on the carpet like housecats; with Jane it's gazing rapturously at cattle.
In any context other than a Terrence Malick movie, this behavior would be just fucking weird. And by taking pains to ground this action in the recognizable real, Malick makes it even weirder.
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