If you want the usual things you might expect in a film like a story or dialogue then forget about it. You’ll probably end up walking out half way through like two of the five people did from the grossly under patronised auditorium where I saw the film.
I strongly suspect the two quitters hadn’t seen the Tree of Life, director Terrence Malick’s most recent film before this. Because To The Wonder really follows on from where that left of. Not in terms of narrative because of course there isn’t really one. But in terms of tone and style.
For a maverick director who has only made six films in five decades, all of which have been strikingly original and varied in subject matter if not theme, it is a surprise that he has made two films so close together in terms of time (rather than the 20 year wait between films we are used to from him) and in terms of look and feel.
What I am trying to say is that if you hated the Tree of Life you are gonna hate To the Wonder. If you loved Tree of Life though you are gonna like this.
Although To The Wonder is not as ambitious. There are no half hour sections about the birth of the universe, and the spirituality is laid on less thick too.
In fact Malick’s previous five films (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, New World and the Tree of Life) have undoubtedly been on a clear trajectory from relative convention to extreme experimentation with the medium of film, albeit it big budgeted and kinda mainstream film. To The Wonder takes almost a step back from the Tree of Life. Well half a step maybe.
It is a tight film, set uniquely for Malick in the present day. There is less to chew on than in the Tree of Life too. With the exception of Javier Bardem’s priest popping up every now and then and questioning his faith among the down trodden and poor of society, this is purely a portrait of a relationship. From the ups to the downs.
But this is a film to look at and admire like you would a painting in a gallery. The relationship is shown via snatched images and poetic whispered voiceovers in the vein of Hiroshima Mon Amour.
There is no narrative drive. Conversations and dialogue are heard in fractured splinters, and barely audible. Indeed the camera follows this idea, slowly but constantly moving around, over and under the actors, as if the artist is looking for his angle. In fact the film is almost cubist in its presentation of the characters.
And Malick’s landscape work is just as powerful as ever. Like the Impressionists he uses natural light and the outdoors to paint his canvas.
From the most impressionist of cities Paris, his camera drools over the beauty of the Tuileries Gardens and the Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries in the Musée national du Moyen Âge. And a trip to Mont St Michel is wondrous in its beauty.
The America of Oklahoma and Malick’s more familiar territory of wheat fields and grassy expanses of flat featureless horizons are shown with his usual deference to nature. Yet he mixes in images of suburban America in all its ugly blandness too while focussing on the beauty of a sunset amid this man-made mess.
There are obvious flaws though, such as the rather randomness of the Javier Bardem character whose story seems to have little connection to the main one. And there is also little to get a grip on. It feels a bit lacking in substance and a bit lacking in emotion.
It is however a daringly beautiful film, even when looking at ugly suburbia. It is a film to look at. And a rather original and wonderfully presented portrait of a man and a woman.