Love in film is often portrayed as a binary system. Love is present, or it is not. Love is reciprocated, or it is unrequited. Love is alive, or love is dead. This system of “yes” or “no” creates in the real world a false sense of security around the idea of love, one that is shattered the moment one finally comes to accept the idea that they are loved, or are in love. It would take a bold, accomplished filmmaker to attempt to create a cinematic perspective of love that approaches the utter bafflement and uncertainty of real world love, and an even more audacious artist to make such a statement work.
Needless to say, Terrence Malick is such an artist.
Of course there is an innate character to the films of Malick which keeps many viewers on the outside, and this is no doubt the case with you, To the Wonder. I do not doubt that there will be those who view your divergences of story, your unexplained jumps in narrative, and your more dreamlike reveries as the indulgences of a pretentious, soporific auteur. But for those who travel along the same introspective wavelength and who can identify with the emotional core of your story, I have no doubt you will be one of the most transfixing, moving films they will find this year.
Your story, so much as you can be said to have a traditional story, follows the wandering heart of Neil (Ben Affleck). In Paris he meets Anna (Olga Kurylenko) the spirited single mother of Tatiana. They fall in love, the kind of breathless and giddy love that includes ridiculous public displays and thoughtless acts of devotion. Marina follows Neil to America, where his return to his job and to the real world takes its toll on their relationship. The two never marry, Neil seeming opposed to the idea all together, and before long the torment of their nebulous relationship is tearing them apart.
Your narrative, ethereal and groundless as it is, moves through a series of moments and experiences that guide the viewer through the memories of characters who have moved through the many plains, hills, and valleys of extant love. We see events devoid of effecting context, happening seemingly in a vacuum. Fights spring up out of moments of unbridled love and passion. Conflicts end with tender embraces. Moments of emotional extremity erupt and are extinguished in fleeting moments barely registered. This transience of momentum and meaning could be infuriating to anyone who is only acquainted with the standard explication of love from Hollywood films, but will feel all too real and affecting to someone who has ever spent time reflecting on a relationship, or a history of loves lost, found, and abandoned.
Malick excels at this kind of storytelling, creating an experiential momentum that draws the view in like an undertow. His camera remains in motion, like the passage of time flowing through events, never allowing for a static view. He can find the unreal in reality, creating staggeringly beautiful tableaus and instances out of the everyday mundane. He has an uncanny ability to evoke the sensation of unwavering momentum present in moments of intense emotion.
An interlude involving Jane (Rachel McAdams), a woman from Neil’s past, will stand out to some as the pivotal moment of abandonment in terms of their patience with your story, and yet for me this segment was both visceral and affecting, a perfect microcosm of your power. During a reprieve from his tumultuous relationship with Marina, Neil reconnects with Jane in a hospital, begins seeing her, and enters into an idyllic relationship with her. Their time together is blissful, free of weight and strife. Yet when Jane declares her desire to be wed, to spend their life together, it rings almost as a death knell for their time together.
This movement – and sometimes musical terminology seems to be the only way to truly define the acts of a Malick film – encapsulates the greater themes of To the Wonder. There is no explanation of why they were both at the hospital. Instead the moment appears and moves in the manner of a memory, with the act occurring in a vacuum of pure experience. The reason for moments is unimportant in the context of such reverie, paling before the ultimate emotional meaning of the recollection itself. Every moment of the movie is like this, culminating into an overall mixture of unstated and yet ecstatic understanding.
This will, of course, baffle some people. Malick does not make films so much as he makes narrative arguments made to explicate his very spiritual and enlightened point of view regarding greater truths of life. As The Tree of Life sought to make understood the unknowable mystery of all life and existence, To the Wonder hopes to dispel the Hollywood myth of falling love in favor of the more honest human experience existing with love. Everyone feels love, but how do we express it, how do we share it, how do we embrace it?
The answer, it seems, is that these questions don’t matter as much as does the act of commitment and dedication. At the outside of all of this action revolving around Neil is a priest played by Javier Bardem undergoing a kind of crisis of faith, his homilies regarding love accenting the scenes that we are experiencing. Ambivalence can poisoning the promise of any relationship, be it one of faith or romance, and these men have uncertainty in spades. As time goes on we find that love follows an assertion of trust and commitment. Trying to reverse that order, to hold out on committing until you are certain of love, is disastrous.
There is a richness and a fullness to your story that cannot be properly delineated in a scant 1,000 words. There is the recurring juxtaposition between being in love and being on the earth, which is given thematic import given the fact that Neil is an environmental surveyor. There are the many succinct and punishingly well-observed statements regarding love. You are a film of unerring conviction and uncompromising vision, the purest and most honest distillation of the fact of love I’ve seen in some time.
To paraphrase Marina, I’m glad we could go even a little bit of our way together,
Brian J. Roan