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Malick’s (un)romantic musings

The world is poisoned and so are we.

To the Wonder: Bracing, like a convertible ride on a cold morning in France.
To the Wonder: Bracing, like a convertible ride on a cold morning in France.
Movie

To the Wonder ***

thumbnail

Director Terrence Malick turns his camera on the transcendent character of love - an admittedly difficult trick. Love isn't as easy to catch on film as, say, lovers (Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko). But Malick has an eye for turning external landscapes into signposts of the interior life: the island abbey of Mont Saint-Michel and the muck that surrounds it signifying the ecstatic rise of love and the mundane sludge that grounds it. (More troubling: the couple moves to Oklahoma and finds that the sludge is poisoned.) Even the lovers serve to point us toward their inner selves: the camera shows Affleck as a stone slab of a man, while it sends Kurylenko beating against him like waves on a cliff. Guidance comes via Javier Bardem as a parish priest struggling to find God even as he points the way. Allusive and elusive, it's also crazily beautiful.

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"Why do we come back down?” asks Marina (Olga Kurylenko) in Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder. Why, after mounting to transcendence, do we sink back willy-nilly into everything we sought to transcend? To take an example from the film: why, after we ascend into an otherworldly realm like the island abbey of Mont Saint-Michel, do we wind up tromping through the unstable muck that surrounds it?

Well, because we’re human. Even if we believe are made for Heaven, we must make our home on Earth — whether that’s France, where Marina lives with her daughter, or Oklahoma, where she goes with her new lover Neil (Ben Affleck). Both places offer the wonder that the title mentions. France has gardens and cathedrals, Oklahoma has prairie sunsets and the neon brilliance of a Sonic burger joint. But both places are also stuffed with the deadening weight of the everyday. Tellingly, not a single glowing screen appears in the film: no TVs, no smartphones, no tablets. In short, no distractions from real life and the (wonderful, awful) real people we encounter.

On top of that — or maybe, rather, below it, adding ballast to our earthbound selves — there is something amiss. The world is poisoned, and so are we. Affleck spends his time investigating fouled rivers and toxic dirt, but that’s not the point of the film. Like almost every exterior Malick shows us, it’s just a sign, pointing to the interior landscapes of his characters. It’s Affleck who is poisoned: the river of love that ought to flow to Marina is choked, dammed, diverted. And Marina, damaged by the failure of her first marriage, is herself closed off: if children are the fruit of love, she has taken steps to remain fruitless.

How to dramatize such an interior story? How to convey restless souls with a minimum of dramatic actions? Malick takes two approaches. First, he makes the camera move. It’s not shaky, but it’s rarely still, and when it is, it’s only for a few seconds. Neil is a stone slab of a man, but the cinematography sends Marina beating against him like waves on a cliff. Second, he gives us a man whose exterior life is devoted to care of the interior: a parish priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem). As a preacher, Quintana can talk about the transcendence demanded by love even as he fails in his own search for the divine. And as a minister, he can show that perhaps the best way to search for wonder that endures is to roll up our sleeves and dig into the muck.

Of course, this being Malick, nothing about To the Wonder is quite so straightforward as I may have made it seem here. Some may find its allusive, elusive character frustrating, or even obtuse. Others, myself included, may find it a respectful, even reverent approach to the mysteries of love.

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To the Wonder: Bracing, like a convertible ride on a cold morning in France.
To the Wonder: Bracing, like a convertible ride on a cold morning in France.
Movie

To the Wonder ***

thumbnail

Director Terrence Malick turns his camera on the transcendent character of love - an admittedly difficult trick. Love isn't as easy to catch on film as, say, lovers (Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko). But Malick has an eye for turning external landscapes into signposts of the interior life: the island abbey of Mont Saint-Michel and the muck that surrounds it signifying the ecstatic rise of love and the mundane sludge that grounds it. (More troubling: the couple moves to Oklahoma and finds that the sludge is poisoned.) Even the lovers serve to point us toward their inner selves: the camera shows Affleck as a stone slab of a man, while it sends Kurylenko beating against him like waves on a cliff. Guidance comes via Javier Bardem as a parish priest struggling to find God even as he points the way. Allusive and elusive, it's also crazily beautiful.

Find showtimes

"Why do we come back down?” asks Marina (Olga Kurylenko) in Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder. Why, after mounting to transcendence, do we sink back willy-nilly into everything we sought to transcend? To take an example from the film: why, after we ascend into an otherworldly realm like the island abbey of Mont Saint-Michel, do we wind up tromping through the unstable muck that surrounds it?

Well, because we’re human. Even if we believe are made for Heaven, we must make our home on Earth — whether that’s France, where Marina lives with her daughter, or Oklahoma, where she goes with her new lover Neil (Ben Affleck). Both places offer the wonder that the title mentions. France has gardens and cathedrals, Oklahoma has prairie sunsets and the neon brilliance of a Sonic burger joint. But both places are also stuffed with the deadening weight of the everyday. Tellingly, not a single glowing screen appears in the film: no TVs, no smartphones, no tablets. In short, no distractions from real life and the (wonderful, awful) real people we encounter.

On top of that — or maybe, rather, below it, adding ballast to our earthbound selves — there is something amiss. The world is poisoned, and so are we. Affleck spends his time investigating fouled rivers and toxic dirt, but that’s not the point of the film. Like almost every exterior Malick shows us, it’s just a sign, pointing to the interior landscapes of his characters. It’s Affleck who is poisoned: the river of love that ought to flow to Marina is choked, dammed, diverted. And Marina, damaged by the failure of her first marriage, is herself closed off: if children are the fruit of love, she has taken steps to remain fruitless.

How to dramatize such an interior story? How to convey restless souls with a minimum of dramatic actions? Malick takes two approaches. First, he makes the camera move. It’s not shaky, but it’s rarely still, and when it is, it’s only for a few seconds. Neil is a stone slab of a man, but the cinematography sends Marina beating against him like waves on a cliff. Second, he gives us a man whose exterior life is devoted to care of the interior: a parish priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem). As a preacher, Quintana can talk about the transcendence demanded by love even as he fails in his own search for the divine. And as a minister, he can show that perhaps the best way to search for wonder that endures is to roll up our sleeves and dig into the muck.

Of course, this being Malick, nothing about To the Wonder is quite so straightforward as I may have made it seem here. Some may find its allusive, elusive character frustrating, or even obtuse. Others, myself included, may find it a respectful, even reverent approach to the mysteries of love.

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4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
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