Filling the Audience with ‘Wonder’

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The creative power duo of Terrence Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki reprise their roles from 2011’s impressionistic slideshow, “The Tree of Life,” as director and cinematographer respectively for the pensive melodrama, “To the Wonder.”

So, this is what we’ve got to work with: two rapturous lovers, the beguiling sprite and single mother Marina and the American environmental inspector Neil, find love in Paris. Their relationship deepens (you can tell from all the pore-invading close-ups of caresses and fingers) and Neil decides to bring Marina and her daughter, Tatiana, home to rural Oklahoma. The couple fall out and Marina’s visa (along with her patience) expires, leaving Neil to rekindle a flame with childhood-friend-turned-hometown-hottie, Jane. But, as tempests do, Marina reenters Neil’s life and he marries her.

Add in the surprising parallel storyline of Father Quintana, a priest who is losing sight of his faith, and you’ve got a Malick film going.

Olga Kurylenko’s simultaneously charismatic and nymphean twirling, her capricious outbursts — vulnerability, wanton sex, then furniture-breaking frustration — make her performance as Marina a revelation.

As Neil, Ben Affleck plays the phlegmatic, oftentimes literally faceless, masculine lug. He is depersonalized to become an “everyman,” but it reads more uninterested than brooding.

Rachel McAdams is as compelling as ever as Jane, but spends all of eight minutes on screen, while Javier Bardem is wasted on the marginal role as Quintana and feels dwarfed by Malick’s own creative ambition.

Notorious for heavily editing his actors’ dialogue and even robbing entire roles (see Adrien Brody in “The Thin Red Line”), Malick does the same for his cast in “To the Wonder,” reducing them to mere avatars of emotion, cogs in Malick’s attempts at universal pathos.

The visuals are wondrous, some scenes overwhelmingly so. The opening sequences of Mont Saint-Michel and its encroaching tide, to the disarmingly modern, Hopper-esque shots of strip malls and supermarkets, to Malick’s most recent calling card — the pixie girl frolicking in a sea of wheat stalks — are in themselves meditations of young love, alienation and the human condition.

“To the Wonder” is an exhibition of tactility as well, featuring fetishistic close-ups of skin-on-skin, broad sinewy backs and hands covered in dirt and sunlight. (We’re treated to some hi-res shots of all four main characters’ hands. Hell yes, Bardem hands.)

Sounds in this film are not functions of dialogue, but of philoso-poetic (read: bordering kitschy) one-liners and only add to the texture-opera that is this film’s audio. The heady reverie of French, the forlorn prayer in Spanish, that molasses opacity of a Southern drawl, overlapping murmurs and distortions that mimic human hearing, and even some bickering with American Sign Language laid against pulsating Wagnerian overtures, constitute the film’s vast array of sounds.

Malick’s doubts as a director, unfortunately, aren’t as suppressed as the plot of the film. Years can fly by from one scene to the next, and years seem to lug and creep during a single scene. I mean, 40 percent of the film is dedicated to Marina doing that weird gypsy-nymph dance. She’s sublime and French, and I get it; but coupled with Malick’s unrelenting editing, she just adds to the confusion. And consider the fact that there isn’t much of Malick’s scrap of a plot on which to hold. Yes, even Malick’s imagery needs specifics and context  off of which to bounce. That shot of the flock of crows flying into the cathedral isn’t going to over-analyze itself, is it?

This film might be the first inkling of Malick that is even less concerned with the traditional narrative, eschewing plotlines for montages. And you know what? I for one, welcome our new arthouse-experimental overlord.

Malick fans will enjoy this atmospheric patchwork of vignettes, but should you be a Malick virgin, you might burst out “This movie is torture!” or something like, “This is the stupidest shit I’ve ever seen,” as movie-goers behind me hissed. But if you do decide to watch it, sit back, breathe and let it evoke, let it coax emotions that other films would prematurely hand you.

Only recommended if you’re a Malick fan.