To The Wonder: Terrence Malick’s first woman’s film(?)
Terrence Malick’s new film To The Wonder (2013) is in many ways a continuation of the themes and film style he introduced in The Tree of Life. What was original about his previous film has now become somewhat less so in his new film. For those that found Malick’s previous film to be too pretentious or religious will certainly have the same problems with his new film. For those that enjoyed his previous film will certainly at the very least like his new film. I argue that to get anything out of Malick’s To The Wonder, audiences should change their expectations to match up with an experience like watching The Tree of Life.
The plot of To The Wonder could be written on a cocktail napkin. A man (Ben Affleck) falls in love with single mother (Olga Kurylenko) from Paris. They move to his home in America. They separate. He meets another woman (Rachel McAdams). Old girlfriend returns and they get married and then divorce. Maybe it could be written on two cocktail napkins.
What Malick is not interested in with this film is exploring a conventional romance plot. It’s also unclear whether he is interested in romance itself but instead in an abstract definition of Love. Love for the universe, for God, for ourselves and each other. This is demonstrated with montages of women spinning around, playing with things, walking in the grass, and kissing her man’s hands as he walks past her. We see the man at work, at home standing, sitting, staring at nothing or something, and playfully goofing around with his woman.
While the plot is conventional, Malick’s characterizations are somewhat unique because they recall tropes from silent cinema. The way Malick constructs his characters is similar to how F.W. Murnau did in both Sunrise: a song of two humans (1927) and Tabu: a story of the south seas (1931). Like the two Murnau films, To The Wonder‘s story is not about a man and a woman but about MAN and WOMAN. Just like the characters are named in Sunrise “The Man” and “The Wife”, Malick’s characters represent universals and not particulars. Much like the way religious or tribal myths construct narratives about the world, Malick tells us a story about the universal MAN and WOMAN in love on earth. This is the best way to approach this narrative. Some audience members might get annoyed at Malick’s approach to characterization and story but once you recognize the way he tells his stories then you might be able to enjoy the film a bit more. For better or for worse, Malick’s narrative universe combines the finite with the infinite and explores big themes in the process.
Like The Tree of Life, this film does many things with camera and montage that will test the majority of American audiences’ patience. A large of this has to do with Malick’s camera placement and frenetic editing style. However, this point doesn’t mean that challenging essentially equals good. For example, Deuce Bigalow challenges my patience to a number that if I were to quantify it would probably approach infinity. That said, Malick’s unconventional camera placement and montage are used to depict the content of the story that he prefers to emphasize over things. The camera wanders, peaking in and out of rooms, exploring the space where they live together. The film highlights the quiet, contemplative moments of this couple while suppressing any coverage of their conversations (most of the dialogue is delivered through voice-over; more on this part of the film below).
To The Wonder is a film about love, human existence, commitment, fragility, hope, disappointment, home (and being away from home), the universe, and God which big themes for any artist to tackle. But, there are points when Malick doesn’t handle these themes very well. The same innovative camerawork he introduced in his previous film now seems a little tired. There are several sequences in the film where Malick straddles the line between self-plagiarism (Alfred Hitchcock’s definition of “style”) and self-parody (how many times does he need to show Kurylenko spin around in a field?). The voice-over is extremely corny at points and doesn’t add anything to the film either.
The most interesting aspect of the this film was who was speaking in the voice-over. Ben Affleck’s character was for the most part silent. Kurylenko and McAdams made up nearly all of the voice-over in the film (except for when Javier Bardem’s “Priest” was ruminating about God, love, and human existence). Malick, whether intentionally or not, made a beautiful woman’s film. Because Malick uses so much of the film language deployed in silent films, this film reminded me of Griffith’s The Female of the Species (1912), possibly the first woman’s film in history. In Malick’s film, the female voice takes control of the narrative in ways that are usually not allowed in serious drama films made in America. We see a relationship grow and dwindle from the perspective of the woman which is something Malick did with his first film, Badlands (1973), but more focus is given to women in this film. Malick depicts the emotions of a woman that transplanted herself and her child from Paris to America for a man. He shows us a love story begin and end. The female voice dominates the film and makes To the Wonder unique in Malick’s filmography
And because this is Malick’s woman’s film you can expect many sequences of Kurylenko spinning around and prancing outdoors. That’s Malick for you. I myself will keep seeing his films in the theatres because he is one of the few directors that makes films that are not only about something but also do something at the same time.