Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder: Rapturous, Forbidding, Wondrous

Earning boos and bravos at Venice, this daunting experiment is also a rapturous photo essay on carnal and spiritual love

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Redbud Pictures

A flurry of boos followed by cheers greeted the end credits at this morning’s critics screening of To the Wonder, Terrence Malick’s sixth film in a 40-year career that began with Badlands and reached an elysian peak of sorts last year with The Tree of Life. Malick movies often stoke reactions of awe and “Huh?” His latest, which has its world premiere Sunday night at the Venice Film Festival, pushes cinematic experiment to a degree not previously attempted by this restless, mysterious auteur — or, really, by anyone else working in narrative film. As Ben Affleck, its putative star, reportedly said after seeing To the Wonder, it “makes The Tree of Life look like Transformers.”

(Venice Film Festival: Follow TIME’s Complete 2012 Coverage)

The simple romantic triangle of a man (Affleck), his Ukrainian wife (Olga Kurylenko) and the American girl he left behind (Rachel McAdams) becomes the theme for a modernist symphonic variation of enigmatic figures and pristine nature as captured by Emmanuel Lubezki’s ever-gliding Steadicam. This could be the most formally radical post-narrative American film ever to be released — if it ever gets released. To the Wonder plays next week at the Toronto Film Festival, but so far it has no U.S. distributor. And Malick, the most famous recluse in movies, was not likely to be explaining his film here on the Lido. A poster affixed to one of the buses that takes cinephiles to the Festival area showed a photo of Malick and, in Italian, the question “Have you seen this man?”

(READ: Corliss’s review of The Tree of Life

“Newborn. I open my eyes. I melt into the eternal night.” The film’s opening words, intoned by Korlenko’s Marina, hint at the commitment Malick insists viewers bring to his work. Go with the flow of images; trust your senses to intuit, from the music of the pictures, meanings that other movies spell out in dialogue. Malick wants to transport you from a multiplex auditorium to the cathedral of nature; To the Wonder, like all his films but especially The Tree of Life, is a ramble through the ecstasies of the natural world as experienced or ignored by little people on a giant, gorgeous planet.

On the rocky Normandy island of Mont Saint-Michel (where Michael Bay, director of the Transformers films, shot part of Armageddon), Marina and her lover revel in the physical and spiritual intensity of their affair. They tread the shoreline, where the silt has the strange consistency of a giant Baggie, and climb steps to the island’s peak — “to the Wonder.” Marina proclaims herself “forever at peace”; the movie will document that forever is a perishable commodity.

(READ: Brad Pitt on the Mystery of Terrence Malick)

Affleck’s character, unnamed in the film but called Neil in the press notes, has fallen in love with Marina and, hardly less, her charming, 10-year-old daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chahine), the child of a Frenchman who abandoned them years before. After their Paris rapture, Neil takes Marina and Tatiana to his home in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, where he gets a job as an environmental inspector. The townsfolk are dependent on the oil industry, whose product is seeping upward, threatening crops and homes. As a toothless local says, “Sometimes we see tar comin’ out the cracks in the patio.”

The residue of Neil’s earlier life, along with Marina’s and Tatiana’s feeling of foreignness in a land so different from the one they knew, is creating cracks in their relationship. Tatiana, who speaks little English and can make no friends in Bartlesville, tells Neil that she’s “writing my thoughts” on his forehead; but he’s hiding his own thoughts about interest in his old girl friend Jane (McAdams). Marina, a free spirit who whirls through their house and the wheat fields, and does more dancing here than Michael Jackson does in all of Spike Lee’s Venice feature Bad 25, husbands her secrets from her husband: “I write on water what I dare not say.”

(READ: Corliss’s review of Spike Lee’s Bad 25)

Another displaced person is the town’s Catholic priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), whose vocation and faith are suffering their deepest challenge. He prays to feel “Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ in my heart. Show me how to seek You.” His parishioners have divined his private Calvary; an old woman says, “Father, I’m going to pray for you, so you achieve the gift of joy.” Quintana, the movie suggests, needs to see that God is nature — all around him, in the pained faces of his meager flock.

(READ: Jay Cocks’ review of Malick’s debut feature, Badlands)

Malick is known for shooting miles of film improvisations and stitching his stories together with semi-explanatory voiceover narration. The Tree of Life took three years to complete from its 2008 production to its 2011 Cannes Film Festival premiere. To the Wonder, filmed in 2009, employed five editors to achieve the amorphous shape Malick demanded. In the process, the work of several prominent actors, including Rachel Weisz, Amanda Peet, Barry Pepper, Jessica Chastain and Michael Sheen, was excised from the film. It’s said that Malick made three different versions of his 1998 The Thin Red Line: one the release cut, the second a linear narrative and the third wholly impressionistic. With To the Wonder he went with the impressionistic cut, which is fine. But it would be a treat to see, on DVD, the longer version with Weisz, Chastain and the others. Paging the Criterion Collection!  

(READ: Bruce Handy on Malick’s The Thin Red Line)

Affleck — who according to the production notes “read works by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and F. Scott Fitzgerald” and “watched movies starring Gary Cooper to shape [his] character” — is still the male lead, but he has few lines of audible dialogue and little evidence of the fruits of all that homework. The only actor Malick lets run free is Kurylenko, the Bond girl in Quantum of Solace; her performance is less an investigation of character than an angelic fashion statement — part Piero della Francesca, part Francesco Scavullo.

The director was raised in Oklahoma and lived for decades in Paris, where he was married to a Frenchwoman; he now lives in Austin, Texas, with his third wife, Alexandra Wallace, an American. (The film credits “Alexandra Malick” as  “Ambassador of Good Will”; perhaps it was her task to inform Weisz, Chastain and the rest that they didn’t make the final cut.) So he may be telling a version of one chapter in his own story. But, as in any Malick movie, the narrative is just one element in a tapestry of sights and sounds — here, music by Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Haydn, Berloiz, Gounod and, for a football fight song, the Bartlesville High School Marching Band. And the autobiographical takes a back seat to the cosmic.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Malick’s The New World)

The central romance in To the Wonder has its vagrant epiphanies, but it carries less emotional weight than Malick’s choice of faces and vistas; the supporting cast and locations capture the director’s eye and hold the viewer’s. An old black man with a wispy beard whispers a few words to Father Quintana and stirs questions of his own dramatic life in the minds of receptive spectators. An ailing woman, literally wasting away, kidnaps our attention by briefly itemizing her infirmities while clutching his infant child. Malick, the cinema’s great naturalist, nearly outdoes himself with magnificent images of sunsets in France and the American South, in a film whose true subject is visual splendor at the level of rapture.

(READ: Frank Rich on Malick’s Days of Heaven

At 112 minutes Malick’s shortest picture since the 1978 Days of Heaven, To the Wonder could also be called the longest experimental art film ever. This is a test, requiring rapt concentration and acute attention, and repaying a hundredfold. For spectators dulled by the midget movies of an arrtstically timid era, the film may be a chore. For those on Malick’s rarified wavelength, it’s a wonder.