While The Tree of Life (2011) was met with critical acclaim both at Cannes and within film journalism, Terence Malick’s latest offering To the Wonder (2013) has failed to impress a whole host of critics. These critics argue that the film is empty, lacks cause and effect and/or functions as a visual exercise which often resembles a ‘high-end perfume ad’, to summarise a few of the most common views on the film. Fortunately some critics saw past these apparent shortcomings and viewed the film on its own terms. By questioning this critical need for narration, plot and character development, and ultimately valorising Malick’s use of a certain cinematic language, these critics find value in the film by shifting attention away from the aforementioned elements most struggle to see past.
For Roger Ebert this resulted in a short contemplative paragraph which begins ‘Why must a film explain everything? Why must every motivation be spelled out? Aren’t many films fundamentally the same film, with only the specifics changed?’ Like Ebert, Peter Bradshaw draws attention to the reception films of this type garner by noting the boos and hisses To the Wonder received at Venice following its premiere. According to Bradshaw, ‘Malick gets this treatment, while the most insipid, unadventurous movies here can fade to black and roll credits in respectful quiet.’ From these comments, one assumes that the general critical consensus sides with the unoriginal, or at least, the most understandable. And this to some extent is true, if we focus on the reception of To the Wonder in mainstream newspapers and journals. In order to appreciate new and alternative works of cinema, the critic must learn to assess them in a different way to those films which he/she is accustomed with. To understand To the Wonder, or to at least appreciate it, the critic must set aside the desire for those elements which constitute the mainstream cinema and instead focus on the film’s use of visuals, narration and sound.
If one analyses The Tree of Life and To the Wonder together it becomes easy to see why the critics preferred the former to the latter. Indeed my own assessment of the two films squarely places The Tree of Life as the superior work. However, to write of To the Wonder as not worthy of attention would be a mistake. While The Tree of Life is also fundamentally a visual film, it is a film of great ambition, focusing not only on memories of 1950s small town Americana but the creation of the universe and the evolution of life up until the present. To the Wonder on the other hand, deals predominately with the themes of love and religion. If this was not a much subtler choice, Malick’s handling of these themes through his avoidance of plot and character development makes it so. It seems to me that critics accepted The Tree of Life because it was such a startling achievement, the visuals, camera-work and production design are so awe-inspiring that it would be difficult to write the film off. Although in To the Wonder Malick transfers the style of The Tree of Life to the film, he decides to leave out the astonishing scenes of destruction and creation in conjunction with the re-enactment of 1950’s America which constitute the earlier film. Without the spectacle which arguably distracted the viewer from the style of The Tree of Life, Malick forces the viewer to contemplate the cinematic language extended in To the Wonder, as this is predominately what is of interest in the film.
The visual style of Malick’s film seems to emerge partly from the jump cuts most connect with the films of the French New Wave, chiefly those within Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960), and an artistic style which came about later with the invention of the Steadicam. While the film’s use of movement reminded me of numerous filmmakers, from Andrei Tarkovsky to Miklós Jancsó and Bela Tarr, it seems to me to function as predominately an Emmanuel Lubezki, the film’s director of photography, and Terence Malick invention. Lubezki’s camera floats around the characters, providing an out of body experience familiar to fans of Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (2002) and Enter the Void (2009). However, where Noé employed long takes in these films, Malick shies away from this decision, instead breaking up his sequences into a number of fragments which form a collage of moments when assembled together. As the audience is often attacked by Malick’s images – never allowing contemplation, always changing – many viewers familiar with art cinema may feel uncomfortable with the style of the film. We are never allowed really to study the image, to gasp at its beauty, as we would in those films which employ long takes and subscribe to the ideals of French critic André Bazin. Instead we are inundated by visual stimulation through the movement of both cameras and bodies within the frame.
While it is my conclusion that the film included too much movement and not enough duration, to judge the film on such a line of argument would be reductive, as such an argument rests on merely one way of looking at cinema. Instead what Malick and Lubezki have put forward is an original cinematic language which works against those old theories of contemplating the image, the importance of duration and the sacred long take. Although this style is employed in The Tree of Life it seems to me to have come to its culmination in To the Wonder. While one could definitely argue that Malick often repeats himself within the film, and indeed another film in the exact same style with an absence of plot would function as repetition, the film is an achievement nonetheless.
To the Wonder has so many moments of great beauty: of bison grazing in a field, sunset shots of Oklahoma houses, figures silhouetted in wheat fields and the camera chasing characters through supermarkets and down roads. Like in The Tree of Life these scenes function like memories – fleeting and transient without connection to overall meaning – moments remembered by its four main protagonists. Malick’s style however works at its best when it is connected to emotion. Be it the joy of love, the playful embraces and chases or the moments of violence where protagonist Neil (Ben Affleck) becomes angered at the realisation of his partner’s affair. When Malick makes use of it in relation to still bodies, the camerawork loses some of its power. This could explain the real absence of stillness until the film’s final moments – such a highly kinetic style needs a highly kinetic subject.
While this article has mainly focused on the success of the visuals of To the Wonder, readers may be interested in the basic plot of the film. The film focuses on industry worker Neil who is torn between French immigrant Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and hometown love interest Anna (Rachel McAdams) while in the background to this struggle, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) is seen to be undergoing a crisis of faith. Marina and Neil first fall deeply in love in France, embracing on the beaches adjacent to Mont St. Michel cathedral and subsequently on the banks of the Seine, before deciding to move to the empty and underpopulated landscape of Oklahoma with her daughter Tatiana. Although Tatiana is immediately impressed by the superficialities of America, stating that ‘Everything is beautiful here’ in a supermarket, she soon decides it does not resemble France in any useful way. As Tatiana is unable to assimilate into American culture, acquiring no friends at school, she becomes unhappy and eventually returns to France to live with her father. Meanwhile a gulf has opened between Neil and Marina, whose relationship rarely resembles its former self. Neil rekindles an old flame in the form of Anna while Marina also moves to become interested in other men.
There are many other small moments which populate the film; however, the joys of these small parts must be witnessed not recounted in criticism. Additionally, Malick’s use of narration in the form of monologues by Marina, in French, and Father Quintana, in Spanish, is worthy of some study, as the poetry of such elements are significant. Despite my interest in these components, the aim of this article is to demonstrate the success of Malick’s visual style which functions fundamentally as the indicator of the film’s value. To see the To the Wonder without this in mind would be to fail to see the success of Malick’s film.