Sunday, April 21, 2013

To the Wonder

Written and directed by Terrence Malick, To the Wonder is about an American man who falls for a European woman in France as he takes her and her daughter to America where their love dims as he starts to reconnect with a former flame. The film is an experimental feature of sorts for Malick that explores the world of love and its troubles as well as exploring the world of faith from the perspective of a priest. Starring Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, and Javier Bardem. To the Wonder is a enchanting and glorious film from Terrence Malick.

It’s a film that explores the idea of love in all of its splendor but also its trappings where everyone has these great intentions but there are forces that are unexplained that will tear them apart. While there isn’t much of a screenplay written for this film, there is still a structure of sorts into how Terrence Malick tells the story as the first act is about Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) meeting and falling in love where they go to America. The second act is about Marina going back to Paris after her visa expires where Neil is alone in Bartlesville, Oklahoma where he reconnects with an old flame in Jane (Rachel McAdams) as they have a brief affair. The third act is about Marina’s return to Bartlesville to marry Neil where their love starts to dim as they have no idea what went wrong where they turn to Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) who is going through his own crisis of faith.

A lesser script or a lesser filmmaker would’ve gone for some kind of plot schematics to flesh out the characters more or have them be placed into some kind of formula. In the hands of someone like Malick, it is very stripped down and very loose in order to explore the idea of love. Notably as it reveals the intentions of someone like Neil to give Marina and her daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) a good life that is free and enjoyable. The characters that Malick create are people who are flawed yet very realistic as Neil is a man who is kind and generous but is also a typical man who likes to look at other women. Marina is a free-spirit who likes to wander around any kind of surroundings as she’s somewhat childlike in the way she expresses herself. Upon her arrival to America, she has a hard time connecting with the people and the land as there is this sense of alienation that she and her daughter go through where Marina does have a brief rapport with Father Quintana who is also a foreigner.

Then there’s Jane who is a bit more grounded than Marina as she offers something to Neil that he finds appealing as well as the fact that they have a history together. Still, she knows that Neil is married as Neil is torn between his devotion to Marina but is also in love with Jane as she is hurt by these circumstances. The Father Quintana character is an interesting character but he is part of a subplot of his own as this foreign Catholic priest who lives in Bartlesville who is often questioning himself about his role in the world as he is trying to help others. Still, the sense of doubt he’s dealing with starts to overwhelm him where he and Neil start to connect by going directly to the people in Bartlesville to see what they can do. Still, Quintana is a commentator of sorts as he often talks about love and all of its complexities as it relates to Neil and Marina’s relationship. Even as Malick gives these four principle characters voice-over narrations (w/ Quintana in Spanish and Marina in French) to reflect on themselves and the people around them but it’s done in a mostly minimalist manner.

Malick’s direction is quite typical of what is known about him as a man who is known for creating these gorgeous images that only he could make as he’s spawned many imitators who have been influenced by his visual style. Still, there are things in Malick’s direction that sets him apart from not just his imitators but other filmmakers in the way he creates these free-flowing images filled with some unique framing devices and ethereal camera angles. Even as Malick would often incorporate images of nature to play up the idea of natural forces playing to the fates of these characters. While a lot of the film is shot in Bartlesville, Oklahoma where it is a unique slice of Americana that is filled with clean-cut grasses in the suburbs and places that is typical of American small towns. It does feel like a place that is quite foreign as well as a bit more structured opposed to some aspects of France that Marina lives in.

Malick’s direction is also taking some risks where it is definitely an experimental film of sorts where he also uses a bit of digital video early in the film through the use phone-cams and computers. Another thing that sets this film apart from his other films is that it takes place in a contemporary setting where Malick is going for this very cinema verite style of hand-held cameras of shooting a film just as things are happening around him where he would use a close-up of various real people in the film including convicts pleading to Father Quintana. While it’s a style that isn’t for everyone’s taste as there are things that do get a bit over-drawn in the third act as well as meanders a bit due to its lack of conventional script. It does have a payoff as it relates to the Mont St. Michel cathedral in France where Neil and Marina’s love reaches its apex as Marina through her voice-over calls it the Wonder. Overall despite a few flaws, Malick creates a film that is poignant and engrossing in its exploration into the world of love and faith.

Cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki does what is absolutely some outstanding work with the film‘s very gorgeous and intoxicating photography with its emphasis on natural lighting to create images that are just jaw-dropping. Even in some of the film‘s exterior settings in France and in Bartlesville, Oklahoma where the camera is always gazing into something that is otherworldly as well as some scenes in the exteriors where it maintains something that feels real as Chivo‘s work is just another of his great accomplishments as a cinematographer. Editors A.J. Edwards, Keith Fraase, Shane Hazen, Christopher Roldan, and Mark Yoshikawa do excellent work with the film’s stylized editing with its use of rhythmic jump-cuts as well as a few fade-outs to help structure the film.

Production designer Jack Fisk, with set decorator Jeanne Scott and art director David Crank, does superb work with some of the film‘s set pieces such as the house that Neil and Marina stay in Bartlesville as well as a few sets in France and other locations in Bartlesville. Costume designer Jacqueline West does nice work with the costumes as it is all casual though she makes some nice dresses for both Marina and Jane to establish their characters. Sound editor Craig Berkey and sound designer Erik Aadahl do amazing work with the sound to create some textures in the sound from the voice-overs to the way things sound on location as it’s definitely another highlight of the film.

The film’s soundtrack that is supervised by Lauren Marie Mikus is largely a collection of orchestral music that features some original compositions by Hanan Townshend as well as piece from Francisco Lupica. Still, it is largely dominated by the compositions of pieces by Hector Berlioz, Richard Wagner, Joseph Haydn, Ottorino Respighi, Tchaikovsky, Johann Sebastian Bach, Avro Part, Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Henryk Gorecki. There’s also a few contemporary music that is played in the background by the Oh Sees and St. Vincent to establish the world of Bartlesville.

The casting by Chris Freihofer is remarkable as it consists largely of real people in the background with the exception of a few actors such as Charles Barker as a carpenter Marina befriends and Romina Mondello as an Italian friend of Marina who visits late in the film who questions about Marina’s love life. Tatiana Chiline is wonderful as Marina’s daughter Tatiana as a young girl who is like her mother while feeling out of place in a world as unique that is America. Javier Bardem is superb as Father Quintana as a man who is trying to deal with his doubt as well as trying to be there for the people in Bartlesville directly to see if he can make a difference in their life. Rachel McAdams is amazing as Jane as a woman dealing with her own loss as she and Neil reconnect in a love affair as it is a performance full of radiance and beauty.

Ben Affleck is excellent as Neil as a man who exemplifies all of the good natures of a man who can bring a lot to Marina but is also troubled by the fact that she’s a foreigner in a foreign land while he has temptations of his own as it’s a very engaging one from Affleck that doesn’t have him doing a lot but bringing exactly into what was needed. Finally, there’s Olga Kurylenko in a tremendous performance as Marina as a woman who is so full of life and wonderment as she thinks she has it all until arriving into America realizing how alien she feels in a new land while becoming more lost after marrying Neil as it’s definitely a performance that will be unforgettable.

To the Wonder is a rapturous and sensational film from Terrence Malick. Armed with a great ensemble cast and amazing technical work led by Emmanuel Lubezki’s ravishing cinematography. The film is definitely a very mesmerizing film that explores the world of love as well as faith. While it’s a film that will definitely baffle, annoy, and frustrate casual viewers though are moments that are quite accessible as it would recall some of Malick’s early films from the 1970s. The fact that it’s a very unconventional story is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea as it also contains some of more abstracts elements of Malick’s recent films. Still, there is nothing like this as To the Wonder is an incredible piece of cinema from one of its masters in Terrence Malick.

Terrence Malick Films: Badlands - Days of Heaven - The Thin Red Line - The New World - The Tree of Life - Knight of Cups - Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience - (Voyage of Time: Life's Journey) - Song to Song - A Hidden Life - (The Way of the Wind)

© thevoid99 2013


Alex Withrow said...

Great review, so glad you liked this movie. The more I think about it, the more I appreciate it. I need to watch it again ASAP. Another great addition to Malick's oeuvre.

thevoid99 said...

Thanks. It's a film that I want to revisit again though the small audience I saw it with didn't really like as I heard one old guy calling it trash. Well, it isn't everyone's cup of tea and not an easy film to decipher. Still, it's one of these films that needs to be revisited and probably becomes something better than it actually is.