My buddy Lucas once declared Terrence Malick a “post-modern romantic,” and I wish I’d been the one to call him that first, because it’s so dead-on. As a romantic, Malick has a meticulous attentiveness to the rhythms of nature. He is fascinated by it, and his characters are always returning to it, finding their truest selves within it, rejecting modernity for it. As for post-modernism, that beast, one of the only things we can agree post-modernism includes is a collapse of forms. Malick shows routine disregard for linear narrative, most recently splicing cosmic birth with his characters’ present day, personal histories with imagined heavens in “The Tree of Life”. Dreams and memories and reality and dinosaurs all converge as a spectacular specific/universal tone-poem in “Tree,” and yet the movie still tells a story. It’s a feat!
Whatever interest in plot and narrative Terry may have once had, though, has basically fallen away in “To the Wonder”. I kept wondering wtf “To the Wonder” was about, but about half-way through & after my second bathroom break (I drank a lot of water yesterday), I decided to relax and not think so hard about what it was about. I also stopped reading the subtitles. (Oh yeah, it’s an American movie, but most of the talking–in the form of voice-over narration–is in French, a lil bit of Russian, and Spanish.) I just, ahem, experienced.
The film opens to two lovers (Ms. Olga–a ravishing, spritely, broad-faced beauty–& Ben Affleck, strong and thankfully silent) nuzzling one another under the Pantheon, smiling broadly on the canal in the summer, twirling around statues in the Tuileries in winter. They visit an abbey, and walk on rippled clay on some northern sea shore. They play in the water. They don’t talk. Olga’s kid can’t even understand Ben’s shitty French accent. Talking isn’t part of their love.
This is a movie about sensation, not communication; the feeling of winter sunlight on a skin; the prickles of prairie grass when you slide its berries from the reed; the suck of a boot sole against clay-like mud; the thrill of sliding a finger across the taught abdomen of a lover. You get the idea.
This is also a movie about lack of sensation: where is God? I can’t feel him! is a thought that hovers over this movie. Father Javier Bardem is pastor to an ill-attended Catholic church in SmallTown, OK. It’s no wonder he is questioning his faith when apparently his only acquaintances are a rather Diane Arbus-like freakshow cast of poor meth addicts, an eccentric wizard of a janitor, prisoners, and cognitively-impaired people. I suppose these people are supposed to stand out as aberrations of nature, as ugliness, which is sort of appalling. Structurally, though, I think that’s what Malick was going for: that God’s absence is felt when nature is not right. Father Bardem is not surrounded by beauty, but by dereliction and degraded people.
I’m hesitant to draw too many deep conclusions from any structures that pop up. But it’s clear that Malick is obsessed with the order of nature, and returns over and over again to shots of rippling seas, roaring dams, peaceful pools, bubbling brooklets–you fucking name it. (It’s almost as if he can’t help himself–he too feels oppressed by the orderly subdivisions and wide open asphalt spaces of Oklahama that he chose to film.) Then he has the aberrations (the Diane Arbus cast). And then he has the corruption of mother earth. Ben’s character has a job where he goes around measuring toxic chemicals in the earth near oil extraction sites. He climbs piles of rubble & dust, and wades into toxic ponds in rubber boots. He talks to poor people about tar seeping into their yards. I’m tempted to say Ben’s dealings with corrupt earth are connected to his passivity in love–but I don’t actually know if these dichotomies I’m setting up matter. I think this movie is actually a series of impressions, and that together and separate, they are fine and beautiful and resist hard interpretation.
Which is not to say the film says nothing or is empty. Cerebrally, it does not offer much. But Terry isn’t an intellectual filmmaker in the sense that he cares about controlling the wheels of your mind while you watch his films. He is an emotional filmmaker, toggling with your heart, appealing to your soul. “To the Wonder” offers emptiness in the forms of lots of wide-open space–like the Oklahoma sky, amirite?–and the space is there for you to fill it up with your impressions and memories. In its undulating waves of brown grassy hills, empty parking lots, panoramic waters, and elevated views of Paris’ Hausmannian orderliness–it weaves the viewer into itself, allowing you to graft your experience onto it. As far as a trip to the movies go, that’s about as deep as it’s gon get.