Saturday, January 4, 2014

365 Movies A Year - January 2, 2013

On January 2, 2013, I watched (for the first time) Terrence Malick's sixth completed feature To the Wonder.

I love the films of Terrence Malick. There are times when I think The Tree of Life was perhaps the greatest film to be released in my lifetime so far. Nevertheless, To the Wonder struck me as being likely that great artist's weakest film yet.

It is Malick's most narrowly-focused and "smallest" film yet, lacking the more inherently dramatic subject matter seen in his other films -- the murder spree of Badlands, the Biblical plagues of Days of Heaven, the combat scenes of The Thin Red Line, the civilizations-in-collision of The New World, or the birth of the universe portrayed in The Tree of Life. While most of Malick's films focus on small interpersonal relationships, they're usually juxtaposed with epic conflicts and big, broad themes of life, death and existence. To the Wonder does not completely break from this pattern, but its attempts to find a more universal resonance to its characters' plights seem more forced, or don't connect in the way that they should.

The "plot", so to speak, is rather vague and undefined, naturally. Olga Kurylenko plays an ambiguously European single mother living in Paris who falls in love with an American played by Ben Affleck. They frolic in France before moving to Affleck's hometown in Oklahoma. There problems begin to develop, as the two (along with Kurylenko's daughter) gradually become aware of their flaws and contradictions, and of what our modern society has come to term "irreconcilable differences."The only subplot concerns the local Catholic priest, played by Javier Bardem, who is struggling to find God's in the world around him.

To accuse a Malick film of having an underdeveloped plot seems farcical to anyone familiar and appreciative of his works, but To the Wonder genuinely feels stretched-out and a bit underthought. As always, the cinematography (by Malick's frequent collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki) and the sheer visual wonder is top notch, whether Malick is showing us the natural beauty of rural America, or the urban beauty of Paris. And, of course, the film is nothing if not deeply felt. But perhaps To the Wonder could have withstood a little bit more time in the editing room, allowing for the director to deepen and further work out what he was trying to say.

To the Wonder tries to do no less than understand the nature of love -- the "wonder" of the title, where Kurylenko and Affleck find themselves slipping in and out of -- not only romantic, passionate, erotic love, but also the nature of love as a universal existential presence; it seeks to examine both the love between a man and a woman, and the love between an all-knowing God and the small people who populate his creation. Malick, as ever, is nothing if not philosophically ambitious and spiritually reaching, suggesting an artist who has more in common with Francis of Assisi than Francis Ford Coppola.

But I think the problem may be that the concept of "love," as we know it today, is in fact so vaguely defined that Malick's efforts to connect Kurylenko and Affleck's love affair with Bardem's crisis of faith seem tenuous and uncertain. Similarly, while Malick is terrific at visualizing the feeling of being in love, the transcendent qualities, the feeling of existing in a plain above the squalid mortal world, his attempts at replicating the subtle shifts in desire and spite, the push-pull of personal conflict, are much less effective. The drifting apart of Affleck and Kurylenko's characters makes logically sense, but does not feel as right as their initial head-over-heels playfulness. Nor, for that matter, can it compare to the perfectly realized struggle of masculine wills seen in the director's artistic peak The Tree of Life. In all honesty, the material with Javier Bardem's priest character is the most affecting and intellectual engaging in the film, though it seems to relate only tangentially with everything else that is going on. At  the risk of Monday-morning-quarterbacking, maybe Terrence Malick would have been better off having Bardem's character arc be the film's backbone, as opposed to the clearly personal, but much more diffuse romantic plotline.

Nevertheless, a below-par Malick film is more deeply thought and felt than just about anything you're likely to see at the contemporary cinema, and his singular style (often imitated, never equaled) has a voice that is unmatched, and, when the day comes that Malick sadly shuffles off this mortal coil, we will all be regretting the passing of his works of beauty and grace from our world.

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