Critics and casual moviegoers alike frequently complain of a lack of originality in the output of Hollywood and the broader film industry, the implication being that we see the same half-dozen stories rehashed over and over again. But what if the gratingly familiar nature of most new releases has less to do with story itself than it does with storytelling? Broadly speaking, we all experience the same narratives — of love, of loss, of regret, of joy, et cetera. But what makes us individuals is that we all have different perspectives, different frames through which we interpret these shared narratives. Thus, the way for a film to give us the originality we crave is not to show us events we haven’t seen before—that’s increasingly the domain of CGI-dominated fantasy spectacles—but to show us familiar events in a way we haven’t seen them presented, in order to expose us to a perspective that we hadn’t considered (the basis for empathy).
Maybe the reason that the aforementioned critics and casual moviegoers glibly blame story and not storytelling is because they aren’t truly ready for something new, like Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder,” which has been brushed off by many in the former group as an obtuse “art film” and predictably ignored by the latter group. But initial rejection is inevitable when an artist plays with the perceived limitations of a medium as much as Malick does here, in a work that fuses his prior stylings, impressionism, the silent film, the montage, and, as the critic Bilge Ebiri (one of the outliers who consider the film a masterpiece) adroitly observes, the ballet (the characters move in and out of scenes as if slyly dancing). You’ve never seen a movie quite like “To The Wonder,” even though the story, involving a man’s alternating relationships with two love interests, seems highly familiar.
The perspective that the film’s distinct style seems to capture is Malick’s own, which makes sense especially when considering the autobiographical elements of the story: he was raised where the film is set (Bartlesville, Okla.) and like protagonist Neil (Ben Affleck), he was in love with a Parisian (married, in fact) before falling for an old American friend (his current wife). It’s illuminating to view the film as a cinematic recreation of Malick’s own memories, as its structure in many ways replicates the way we remember: largely dialogue-free; vaguely linear, but full of non-linear interruptions (flashbacks and even dreams); and more focused on the actions and presumed thoughts of the supporting characters than those of the person remembering, who instinctually acknowledges his own (Neil appears a stoic cipher, with fewer than a dozen lines). I would argue that the traditionally Malickian voiceover by lovers Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Jane (Rachel McAdams) is less a reflection of the women’s true internal thoughts than Neil’s speculation on their internal thoughts.
This is why so many critics have described the film as empty: they view Neil as a vacant, enigmatic figure, failing to see the film itself as Neil’s projection, a reading which tells us a lot about him as a man and fosters empathy. And if Neil is Malick, as I would propose, this presentation unites auteur with story more closely than we’ve seen in perhaps any film not made by Woody Allen or Federico Fellini. “To the Wonder” is an artistic representation of the mental narrative that Neil has developed of his life — what could be more human? But this is an interpretation (as any other) that one must arrive at on one’s own, as Malick refuses to explicitly acknowledge his intensions, for that would corrupt the organic feel of the scenes in making the characters seem like pawns of the filmmaker’s agenda.
McAdams and especially Kurylenko, who receives the majority of the film’s minimal dialogue (almost entirely through voiceover, in French), are immensely skilled at constructing fully formed humans within Malick’s uncharted style — presumably not an easy task, given the degree of simultaneous silence and subtlety required of them. Kurylenko certainly gets more to work with than her fellow cast-members in terms of emoting, although it would seem that viewer interpretations of her character, like everything else in the film, vary widely. Through the lens in which she is presented, Marina strikes me as a clear manic-depressive — swept up in the ecstasy of love with Neil for a short period, only to crash back down into severe melancholia. Or perhaps this is just the way that Neil views her, determined to avoid responsibility for the failings of their relationship (though, a prescription bottle that plays a key role in one scene suggests otherwise). “What is this love that love us?” Marina asks in voiceover, as if love (her word for mania?) is a force that she is powerless and beholden to, no matter how much she resists it.
And then there are the scenes with Javier Bardem’s lonely priest, Father Quintana, which may be not represent Neil’s specific visions, as I see the rest of the film, but they are no less important to the overarching perspective that Malick cultivates. They provide a spiritual undercurrent to the proceedings that further supports the idea that “To the Wonder” is a reflection of self for Malick, as we know from his last film, “The Tree of Life,” that he has recently been wrestling with ideas of Christianity and faith in general. Father Quintana seems to seek in Christ what Neil seeks in relationships, coming up empty and desperate despite perpetually looking for hope. His voiceover, addressed directly to God, often feels as though he could be talking to a former lover. Are love and God one in the same?
Impossible to digest in a single viewing, “To the Wonder” is the kind of film that proves cinema can still break new ground—through form, more than content—even in an era that sees 500 movies released every year. No matter what one’s interpretation of the film or one’s opinion of its success, it provides an enriching experience if you’re open to what the filmmaker has to offer (and some glorious images, thanks to the mighty Emmanuel Lubezki). “What is this love that loves us?” Perhaps it’s Terrence Malick himself.