To the Wonder (Terrence Malick — USA) 112 minutes
During Terrence Malick’s long absence from filmmaking, I longed for him to give the world just one more film. Now that he has made as many films in seven years as he did in the preceding 31, I wish he would go no further, lest he spoil irrevocably the memory of a once-great director. There will be many that disagree strongly with that; Malick still has his champions aplenty and won the Palme d’Or at Cannes two years ago for The Tree of Life, a film I found ridiculously overblown and fatuous. Despite all this acclaim (and the attendant absurd readings invested in his work) the fact remains that Malick’s films these days are pretty poor — his ambition wildly outstrips his execution, his vision is pretentious, his narrative tone lamentably jejune. Worst of all, his films, despite their undoubted handsomeness, are a chore to watch.
The problem with To the Wonder begins in the very opening sequence, which appears to be shot on an iPhone or some such low-resolution device. We see the two lovers Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck) frolic on a TGV on their way (to or from?) Mont St-Michel, and walking hand-in-hand in Paris, securing a lover’s lock to the Pont des arts (nice to see that Malick is not above integrating the phoniest of contemporary traditions into his work). Despite the breakneck pace of the film during this sequence — Malick’s five editors (five!) seem incapable of holding an image in place for more than a few seconds at a time — it lacks any freshness. In fact it seems really old — hoary, of a recent vintage. It looks like countless student shorts that have been put together since the advent of camcorders in the late 1980s.
After a brief prologue in France, the pair move to Oklahoma, where Neil appears to be working as a geologist, though we never really know what he’s doing, other than collecting the odd soil sample. He and Marina continue to fall in and out of love — she returns to Paris briefly with her daughter, while he embarks on an affair with Jane, a neighbouring rancher, played by Rachel McAdams. For a man who shuffles around like a sullen date at a wedding where he knows nobody, Neil sure is a hit with the ladies. Quite how he managed to land Marina and Jane we will never know — he is hardly ever heard speaking in the film. Affleck has already expressed his puzzlement at what Malick expected of him. He was left in the dark all along. The result on screen is catastrophic; this is not artistic eccentricity but wretched directing, not to mention an irresponsible squandering of expensive resources. And Affleck, or anybody else, is lucky he ended up in the film at all — Barry Pepper, Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz, Amanda Peet and Michael Sheen all ended up on the cutting floor. Which raises the question, did Malick know what he was doing at all?
Marina returns from Paris to Oklahoma, for reasons best known to herself, and she continues to be filmed from behind in wide-open spaces — Malick is one of cinema’s great claustrophobes — looking forlorn as Malick’s camera zooms and pans all over the place. I’m not sure which grates the most — the catatonic performances of the actors (who really can’t be blamed for it) or the cod-philosophical mumbo-jumbo voiceover that Malick swaddles his narrative in. Then there is Javier Bardem, who is laughably unconvincing as a priest. He too is pained and alone, as everyone in a Terrence Malick film these days must be, locked in the same deathly clutch of humourlessness as the protagonists of The New World and The Tree of Life. Whatever happened to the playfulness of Cissie Spacek and Martin Sheen in Badlands and Linda Manz’s beautifully wry narration in Days of Heaven?
Those who have defended To the Wonder say that it is wilfully abstract and a visual poem of sorts. That would be fine if any of it worked but there is just too much wrong with it — it is basically a bigger budget non-musical version of Once wrapped in the aesthetics of a Kenzo commercial. That is how slim its concept is. The fact that Malick translated Heidegger in his youth still gives his threadbare platitudes some philosophical clout among critics. There is a place for ideas in cinema but there are filmmakers that do all this far better — Bruno Dumont in France, Belá Tarr until his recent retirement and the Catalan Jaime Rosales, who can conjure up a more persuasive portrait of desolation in a minute of film than Malick can in a whole movie.
The ghost of Chris Marker also haunts this film, and not in a good way. There are echoes of Marker’s masterpiece Sans Soleil, but the late Frenchman knew the ontological value of an image and its placement in a sequence and he also respected language. In none of Marker’s films will you find the sort of obfuscatory nonsense that plagues Malick’s. Marker’s voiceovers propel his argument; Malick’s just attempt to hold together a very flimsy enterprise. Whereas Marker’s images are pregnant with mystery and nudge at interpretation and counter-interpretation, Malick’s are pretty but pretty vacant. It is, in Godard’s celebrated words, not a just image; it is just an image. So calamitously off are Malick’s films these days, so risible their execution, you wonder does he actually watch films at all by which to gauge how cliched he is. More to the point, does he have anyone around willing to take him aside and tell him what they think?