After their recent experience at “The Tree of Life,” many moviegoers now know that director-screenwriter Terrence Malick is not your typical cinematic storyteller.
He's more of a film painter, creating a mood for meditation somewhere near the place everyday life, the rocky road of love and the mysteries of the eternal divine intersect.
With “To the Wonder,” Malick again seeks more to evoke thought and feeling than to spell out a literal story. There's little dialogue and minimal character development as we witness random pieces of daily life.
The result, which combines breathtaking nature cinematography with a score inspired by the classical music of Wagner and Gorecki, will enrapture some and leave others hungry for more to happen — or for clarity and closure.
The basic storyline concerns Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a divorced Russian immigrant in Paris, and Neil (Ben Affleck), an American who falls in love with her there. They are obsessed with each other, an unspoken intimacy in the language of their touch and movement.
In a beautiful sequence shot at Mont St.-Michel, a spired abbey built on a rocky tidal island off the coast of France, Neil and Marina frolic and nuzzle. As they walk up a stair to a landscaped courtyard, Marina says, “We climbed the steps to the wonder.” She wonders aloud where love comes from.
Soon Neil asks Marina and her 10-year-old daughter to live with him in America. They go. Oklahoma is flat. Their huge suburban house feels underfurnished, isolated at the edge of fields, temporary. Marina's daughter whines that they should marry. “We need to leave. There's something missing,” she says.
At the same time, we meet a Hispanic priest in the town (Javier Bardem). He's lonely in his brand-new church, asking God to return to him as he visits the poorest sections of town, trying to connect. “My heart is cold, hard.” His isolation is almost palpable.
Neil's job, as some kind of environmental chemical inspector, takes him away from Marina more. Unhappiness grows, particularly after he reconnects with a former girlfriend, Jane (Rachel McAdams). They get their own visually idyllic moments amid a herd of buffalo, a herd of horses, ravishing sunsets, the wind.
Marina and daughter return to Paris.
And so on. And so on. The undulations in Neil's relationships with each of these women is caught in random snatches of dialogue, but more often in simply observing their faces and body language. Each of the three feels deep love. Each gets wounded. Even the priest is wounded in his deep love for God.
Malick seems to be wrestling with some kind of connection between closeness to nature and God and closeness in personal and romantic relationships. Or maybe with the struggle for belief: belief in love, in God, in goodness within.
Whatever he's pondering, it's not far removed from the pensive mood of “The Tree of Life,” though it is considerably shorter. And just as gorgeous to look at.
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