How long have you spent time in someone’s company before one of you speaks, or checks your cellphone, or quietly whistles or hums? In Terrence Malick’s beautiful film poem, “to the Wonder”, our characters spend most of their time together in silence. The opening scene of the young lovers traveling by car, touring a landmark on the French coast and walking along the beach, all in silence, was finally relieved by a little laughing. The stilted, surreal nature of this film is off-putting to such a great extent that even with determination to put aside preconceived notions of plot and character development, it’s still hard to relax into the poetry of images.
This is not a film that’s concerned with narrative. Yes, there are lovers and there is conflict but resolution is not the goal. This is an attempt to explore the larger truths of love, faith, trust and a study of one man’s inability to commit. Ben Affleck’s character, Neil, is so conflicted that he can’t seem to even furnish his house. Scenes of physical intimacy are shown in tight, close-ups but rarely communicate satisfaction or resolution. Instead, these intimate scenes show a wistfulness or inability to connect and end with one of the character’s turning away or leaving.
This exploration of larger themes is told through the male gaze. Both Rachel McAdams and Olga Kurylenko are photographed from behind as if the audience is posited in Ben Affleck’s place. Both women are extremely fond of twirling; spinning in long skirts across a field or dancing around the house with flowing scarves, even bouncing on the bed; the Wonder women are like pinwheels blown about by their feelings.
Terrence Malick’s films make nature a character. In this film, the wind has a featured role. There is wind blowing through drapes, wind-swept reeds, wind blowing on the water. Nature is a place to escape to, to flee the confinement of suburbia but also a place to reflect and renew. Neil tries to connect with the daughter by talking about the sunset as they walk outside. There is a beautiful scene of buffalo shot in the golden hour, Rachel McAdams hair glowing in the setting sun. Nature also needs to be protected. Neil’s job is taking soil and water samples of the toxins created by construction and he’s shown interviewing people suffering pollution’s effects. The limited amount of dialogue that is heard on the soundtrack (as opposed to the long voice overs from the characters), is mainly from these outsiders; the people in this small town. The daughter is also given spoken dialogue and it’s used to criticize the relationship and to persuade her mother to return to Paris. She tells her mother, “This doesn’t feel right”.
The words are not used to explain motivations or further the plot and the soundtrack drowns out some of Rachel McAdam’s voice over and in it’s discordance, acts as a distancing device for her character. At this point in the film, many in the audience began to leave the theater. Frustrated by the lack of plot or character motivation or lack of resolution?
The who, why and where are left unexplained. The film is focused on images of nature and our main character’s struggle for intimacy and the priest (Javier Bardem) struggling with his lose of faith. the priest intones, “Love is not just a feeling; it’s a duty” and tells Neil, “You are afraid to commit; to risk failure, to risk betrayal”. If there’s an epiphany in the film, it’s the moment when each of the characters seems to find the divine in nature, particularly in the form of light: a sunset, the light on a fence, the light coming through the stain glass window. Ahhh, but if only this divination didn’t take almost two hours to reveal itself!
Rating: 1 glass of sacramental wine