To the Wonder (2013)
In the opening scenes of director Terrence Malick’s newest film To the Wonder, newly infatuated couple Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) roam the streets of Paris ensnared in one another’s rapturous and besotted gaze. Neil is an American abroad who has fallen for the Ukrainian born Marina, who resides in Paris where she is raising her ten-year-old daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline). Upon their travels they make their way to Mont Saint Michel, an island commune off the coast of Normandy, and climb to the historic and tranquil convent at the monument’s peak. Here, their love is solidified, realised atop a blessed plateau, and following this Marina and her daughter move with Neil to his home in America. It is the first allusion of many towards an equation of love and godliness in To the Wonder,and seems to be the film’s ultimate thesis from which all extensions of inquiry derive. Marina even states upon reaching the Mont Saint Michel monastery: “We climbed the steps to the wonder.” A sentiment that echoes throughout most of Malick’s work is realised in full bloom here, like the open flower among the film’s earliest images, that God is love, existing and flowing through everything, even us.
For Malick, said God is obviously a Catholic God. The religious iconography and presence of Javier Bardem’s Father Quintana (a Catholic priest in the couple’s home town) are evidence of Malick’s own religious denomination. However, the godliness of which he links with the act of love here is non-specific; it is divine intervention devoid of dogma. In America we are witness to Neil and Marina’s experience of love as they move in together with Marina’s daughter. Through their embraces, Malick suggests that the joy and elation that results from their mental and physical harmony is spiritual transcendence. These moments are familiar to us, fleeting as they may be. They are immensely powerful in their anchoring of our own bodies and minds to another. It is these moments in time that we yearn for, that we punish ourselves for, a closeness with another that results in catharsis.
Time it seems presents a distortion of these spiritual keyholes and makes us aware of the impermanence of these moments by inevitably ending them. Malick photographs much of To the Wonder with both his camera and his performers in constant movement. His characters dance to the music of time, ever yearning for the return of that loving feeling. At one point Marina states: “You thought we had forever, that time didn’t exist,” yet time of course is only recalled through our memories, and with that comes forgetting. As Marina’s daughter becomes alienated by her surroundings, Marina decides to leave Neil and move back to Paris, seemingly erasing their previously shared love. Their relationship has been corrupted by the passage of time, and whilst Neil attempts to reclaim the feelings with an old flame Jane (Rachel McAdams), Marina dances in his memory, leaving Neil unable to commit to Jane, briefly breaking her heart. Malick’s capturing of their emotional fracture is exquisite, as without words we are witness to that which is normally imperceptible, their lack of love. When Marina’s fleeing to Paris results in dissatisfaction, she returns to rekindle her love with Neil. As they attempt to rebuild their relationship however, Neil becomes naturally unresponsive and distanced. Their moment in the sun has passed.
To the Wonder is Malick’s most grim and hopeless feature yet, as ultimately his letter to love exposes the Godlessness inherent within us all, the spiritual deficit of the modern age. For Malick, love involves sacrifice. It involves the acceptance that moments of spiritual unity are fleeting, and that sustaining love above all adversity is paramount to attaining spiritual clarity. Previously, the sacrament of marriage became a reason to sacrifice, but if God is dead then what sustains love? Thus, infidelity abounds, and in a moment of weakness Marina has an affair with a local man who sports a tattoo of a skull in a spider’s web on his chest. There is darkness in the hearts of men. We further witness this spiritual dusk through the acts of Father Quintana. He has made the ultimate sacrifice, to love nobody but God, and yet sees Godlessness all around him. As he nurtures drug addicts and adulterers, his world becomes cold, with love (and thus God) seeming further from his reach. His desperate voice-over clashes with the sermons he conducts; how can a man who cannot love, preach love?
Previously, Malick has suggested that the natural world may be the repository of a lost spiritual attainment. To the Wonder embraces this concept yet again, making reference to the sun as deity, a notion that has been integral to human religious practice throughout most of recorded history. The sun is the life giver and in Malick’s film it floods the frame in moments of elation and forgiveness and is banished in moments of betrayal and unease. Marina literally blocks the sun from sight with her hand after her adulterous actions, unwilling to accept its mocking rays. The sun is absent also whilst Neil surveys excavated land for his job as an environmental inspector. These grey and upturned landscapes are poisoned with lead, and as a nearby neighbour observes, there seems to be tar seeping up through the cracks in his patio. Like the muddied colony that contrasts with the beauty around it in The New World, our civility is corrupting the natural world and thus nature rejects us.
To the Wonder is a tone poem, a further evocation of Malick’s yearning for answers to the questions that plague us. While his previous film The Tree of Life is a grand, monumental film, To the Wonder exists as its quieter and more contemplative twin. It’s no wonder that footage from The Tree of Life was used in this film, as To the Wonder joins a lineage of films that wander through a metaphoric darkness. The film is a scream into the void phrased as an evocative whisper, an acknowledgement of the torture born from the knowledge of each question’s elusive answer. Malick knows he won’t find any answers, but he shows through his films that there is comfort in their contemplation. The final frame of the film returns to the Mont Saint-Michel, this time from a distance, empty and alone on the shore as the tide recedes. As it stands there, devoid of human life, one can’t help but wonder if we’ll ever reach its peak again.