To The Wonder Film Review
The beautiful threads between Terrence Malick and Stanley Kubrick
Revered for his surreal cinematic storytelling, Terrence Malick is back (in just two years) with
his latest silver-screen offering “To the Wonder”. Famous for somewhat creating his own genre,Malick’s latest stays true to its dramatic core and artistic value, magnificently exploring the theme of love, with his organic style of visual imagery. The film begins in Paris and moves to Oklahoma with our principal characters Niel (Ben Affleck) and Maria (Olga Kurylenko), as we engulf with them into the innate purity of love, that we all experience at the threshold of becoming someone else’s, all the way up till that confounding stage of diluted passion. Malick’s emphatic story telling makes us undergo, accept and understand the loss of love, which is the central theme of this film. His style of storytelling, which is profoundly detailed yet ambiguous, does complete justice to this cinematic love letter called “To the Wonder”, which seems less like a “film” and more like a visual poetry.
The film opens with flashes of landscapes rushing by a train window, as if subconsciously
preparing the audience for a journey, followed by broken images glorifying innocence of two people who are falling deeply in love. It is coupled with soft and dreamy dialogue, which seems as much a part of the film’s narrative, as it seems to be your own thought process. This very style of visual story telling by Malick is where his brilliance lies. The visuals and dialogues together make you empathise and recollect the small details of life, finally making you nostalgic; as if you have, at some stage of your life, thought and felt the same things, asked the same questions. It can be argued that Malick prefers this style, to derive these very emotions from its viewers. The whole film is like an urge. Its urges the audience to think and ask more frequently what they do ask, but seldom, to appreciate and understand how naturally people fall in love, how innocently they give in and how they give up as well, with just as much ease. The couple takes a trip to Mont St. Michel, the island abbey off the coast of Normandy, symbolising it as the monument of their love, the place where their bonds deepened as they merged into each other and felt it’s wonder. To signify their bond,
waters at the shores of Normandy divinely become one with pristine and concave wet sand, and leave us feeling complete. Our set up then moves to Oklahoma, where the landscape is starkly different from Paris. It is sunny, projecting Maria’s happiness, but it gradually becomes empty, to reflect her loneliness. It is the use of Malick’s extraordinary sense of visuals, delivered to perfection by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, that those very landscapes which emanated Maria’s loneliness, also exemplify Jane’s (Rachel McAdams) “home”. Jane enters Niel’s life as a medium to exemplify his fear of commitment.
She comes with her own light and fight and gives Niel the love he had lost with Maria. She has been very intelligently used to inspire Niel and make him understand himself. Oklahoma also introduces us to Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a priest in search of god, carrying the burden of doubting his own faith. He preaches those in need and brings solace to criminals through his spirituality. Malick has not given him a specific plot, but has used him as a poetic guide for the audience and for the characters. He asks questions that everyone has asked, and in doing so, he bizarrely gives direction to our thought process about Niel and Maria’s love that is slipping away. He makes us accept that we may love with all our heart and yet somehow loose it all. He makes us seek what he has been seeking, yet still, he makes us realise we can all figure it out.
The lack of passion and the deteriorating love can still be dealt with and can, in some way or the other, still be fixed. It is amazing, how Malick has been able to achieve all of that without ever directly mentioning it, just through an instrumental character. A small fact of life, that we lose ourselves as we divulge into the one we love has also been established to us through a sudden character entry. Anna (Romina Mondello), Maria’s friend, suddenly enters and reminds her of how free she used to be, she also reminds her of how passionate her love for Niel was and how it has all changed now. She suddenly comes and opens Maria’s now closed heart. Anna does all this by not pointing it out to her; that will never happen in a Terrence Malick movie. She simply runs with her, throws away her bags, yells on the streets and tells her “Life's a dream. In dream you can't make mistakes. In dream you can be whatever you want.” The most intriguing fact about “To the Wonder” however, is not it’s beautiful yet one of a kind narrative style, it’s dreamy cinematography or its theme about the loss of love (they have been portrayed to perfection by the director); it is the sheer way of portraying its actors as the characters. No where do you see Ben Affleck as the star himself, he has been shown just as the character and nothing more. In fact, the beginning sequence of the film does not even see much of his face clearly, as it has entirely been dedicated to how mesmerised he is by Maria. Lubezki has managed to capture to perfection, the essence of lost souls that Malick had penned down on paper. The visuals are abstract and dreamlike yet strong and impactful. Nature has played its own character in the background in Lubeski’s shots. There is almost always a sun glare in the film so keep the wonder alive. Almost every element makes its way in to the story and augments the theme. The water that settled perfectly on the wet sand in the beginning, has sometimes returned to become the distance between the two and sometimes the turmoil. Jane carries the wind in her hair and brings a new freshness to Niel’s life . The use of light, or sometimes the absence of it has been crucial in taking audience towards the place where Malick wants to see them. Another element that keeps us entwined with the film is the melancholic music by HananTownshend. It does total justice to the wonder of the film and acts like the soul of the story, so much so that one may or may not register it, but it will always have an impact. For some, “To the Wonder” may seem unfulfilling and over indulgent, and they may be justified. However, this film does not follow any conventional rules of cinema. It is a purely cinematic endeavour to portray to the world the most accepted and questioned, yet ignored truth about life; how and why do we loose love. Malick has portrayed this raw emotion with profound ease, as if he has tasted it himself. So it is only fair to say that many may not understand his un-conventional style of filming such deep and layered emotions as the fundamental problems of life. Like Roger Ebert, said, “There will be many
who find "To the Wonder" elusive and too effervescent. They'll be dissatisfied by a film that would rather evoke than supply. I understand that, and I think Terrence Malick does, too. But here he has attempted to reach more deeply than that: to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need.”
Terrence Malick has been often been compared to the genius of Stanley Kubrick, and though
there are stark differences between the two, there are even deeper similarities. Kubrick once said, “The screen is a magic medium. It has such power that it can retain interest as it conveys emotions and moods that no other art form can hope to tackle.” His words fit so effortlessly with the celluloid world created by Malick’s films. Although both the directors are famous for their mystics absence from the media, it is not the only common factor between the two, also not the most significant one either. While Kubrick had very tightly composed shots with a definitive camera movement, always specifically lit and shot in the precise way only a passionate photographer’s mind could find important, Malick’s shots are handheld, feathery and dreamlike, always maintaining an equilibrium between his wondrous romance with life and the harmony of his story. And yet they both have the same urge of dealing with deep layers of emotions that are so apparent in both their films.Their films always raise questions so deep that they often go ignored. Not to mention their bold styles. If Kubrick was bold in turning a the cold war scenario in to a comedy, Malick is bold in breaking all the conventional methods of storytelling and the hero’s journey. They are both opposite in their approaches, and yet fit in perfectly with each other. Malick’s previous work “Tree of life” shows how Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey inspired his thought process as a film maker. Both the films take huge leaps in time and plot, asking questions about humanity and evolution,
seeking the purpose of it all and the cost we are paying for wanting more. While Kubrick is very graphic in his style, Malick is more spiritual. They both have a metaphoric style of telling a story, no matter how different their chosen subject matter and needless to say, their deeply layered yet fundamental questions so effortlessly executed for screen. Another amazing resemblance between the two film maker’s passion for telling their stories through the medium of film, is their well justified obsession with detailing. While Kubrick took various NASA lessons and conducted immense technical researches to create the precision of the Space Odyssey, Malick searched the country for that grand oak tree for “Tree of Life” that justified his magnum-opus thought behind the script. In Lolita, Kubrick used leisurely paced scenes that compelled the viewers to mentally withdraw themselves from the high of the moment and soak the entire gravity of the situation. Similarly, Malick does not let a moment pass juts by shifting a shot, but keeps it lingering long enough for the viewers to grasp the depth and importance of those emotions. Like Kubrick keeps his cinematography character driven, whether it is through movement or lenses , Malick’s sense of cinematography is driven by the principal emotion. Suffice it to say that Malick has been inspired by Kubrick in deeper ways than visible and it shows brilliantly in his work.
“To the Wonder” has beautifully made us face the often ignored reality about the loss of love
in our lives and owing to the surreal cinematic depiction of this almost metaphysical reality, where characters are mere instruments of bringing it to the front, Malick has succeeded in his endeavour of materialising these abstract values with full clarity. His characters, locations, camera movements, music and theme are so profoundly intertwined, that they all seem to emanate from a bizarre Omni-present reality that is ever present in the film, all behaving together as an entity in itself. However,its unconventional style may not fully satisfy a conventional viewer, it has its own set of followers, yearning to come face to face with more such values through Malick’s vision. It is only perfect to end with another quote from Roger Ebert, "A more conventional film would have assigned a plot to these characters and made their motivations more clear. Malick, who is surely one of the most romantic and spiritual of filmmakers, appears almost naked here before his audience, a man not
able to conceal the depth of his vision."