“To The Wonder” Leaves One Wondering … What Was That?

Ben Affleck and Rachel WeiszREVIEWED BY: JOSEPH HILLENMEYER

“To The Wonder” – Terrence Malick’s recent romantic drama – begins with Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) spinning and turtle dovin’ on the beaches outside of Mont. St. Michel while Neil is on vacation in France. Neil has fallen in love with Marina and asks her and her 10-year-old daughter, Tatiana, to come back with him to his home in Oklahoma.

The scenic beauty of the island abbey gives way to a fledgling subdivision in the middle of the plains – the spires of Mont. St Michel replaced by towering, high-tension power lines – but the threesome continue to dance, laugh and spin outside of their house around dusk.

Marina finds a familiarity with a catholic priest (Javier Bardem) in town who is also an outsider, and we find out later having a crisis of faith. We learn from their friendship that Tatiana is Marina’s daughter from a marriage, at 19, to a womanizer who eventually ran off.

Most of the scenes in the first 40 minutes are presented with Marina’s character whispering observations about her love for Neil in French, while Malick’s impressive cinematography make the characters seem more realistic than any of their actions do. It is clear, though, that all seem to be getting along nicely.

However, the romance between Marina and Neil begins to cool and Tatiana stops asking him to marry her mother and begins to remind him that he’s not her father.

With Malick’s usual unconventional methods of storytelling there is almost no dialogue between characters and most of the story is told through the actors’ facial expressions as they stare into the camera with the wind blowing in their face. Almost every scene comes and goes without much context and continual shots of sunsets, sunrises and the something-really-amazing-is-about-to-subtly-happen score make the film feel like

it’s just getting started the entire time.

Most of Neil’s few lines come in very brief exchanges with the townsfolk he encounters while performing his job as an environmental inspector. It provides no insight into the character but does allow Malick some opportunities to show us all the wicked things humanity is capable of doing to the planet, like the poisoning of the water supplying from leeching factory chemicals and carving up the earth to quarry stone.

Marina and Tatiana have both grown tired of the surrounding landscape as well, and with her visa expired the mother and daughter decide to return Paris, although her subtitled monologue informs us she would have stayed had Neil asked her.

 

With Marina gone, Neil reconnects with a girl from his school days, Jane (Rachel McAdams) and there are many similar scenes to the previous romance of the two enjoying each other in the presence of nature, all of which remains very well captured by Malick’s camera work.

This relationship collapses as well and Neil returns to France and again brings Marina – who was eager to leave Paris – home with him although without her daughter this time. We are informed through Marina that Tatiana went to live with her father after her mother became depressed by her loss of Neil and life outside the United States.

The second half of the movie does seem to draw on some more tangible emotion as when the relationship again sours we see more of the screaming and fighting, and not just forgiving shoulder grabs after the fact. The character of Jane is never reintroduced and we find out it is not Neil’s wandering eye that disrupts the couple’s love connection the second time around. Marina’s sadness returns – and she gets a little crazy – as she struggles to understand why she is losing feelings for the man she is so convinced she loves.

The film does convincingly portray a sort of tortured love and there is sympathy for the characters that can deeply love one another on vacation, but fall apart when real life gets under way again.

However, the film is as “art house” as gets and if you’re not interested in watching a 113 minutes that all feel like a mix between flashback and dream sequence, “To The Wonder” will seem long and laborious.

I failed to see the connection between a catholic priest’s crisis of faith and the love triangle of two, small-town Okies and a dancer from Paris. Short of the runtime it’s hard for me to imagine what would have changed had both McAdams and Bardem been removed from the script. I found myself throughout the movie wanting more of Bardem’s character, but by the end, none at all, as he seemed mostly to add a fourth distant and confused monologue to a story which already had too many characters and no real people.

“To The Wonder” was an official selection at the 2012 Venice Film Festival and the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.  For more information, click here.