Thursday, August 22, 2013

Penny Thoughts ‘13—To the Wonder (2013) **½

R, 112 min.
Director/Writer: Terrence Malick
Starring: Olga Kurylenko, Ben Affleck, Javier Bardem, Rachel McAdams, Tatiana Chiline

I’m a bit conflicted about Terrence Malick’s latest image and sound collage “To the Wonder”. Certainly it is the weakest of his films. There are moments when it reaches near self-parody. And yet, I’d still rather watch this than 80 percent of most of the movies out there, even ones I’ve rated higher. Malick’s sense of cinema is so grand, his scope so wide, his eye so in tune with the natural world.

“To the Wonder” is less ambitious than all of his other films. Whereas his last film “The Tree of Life” was his most ambitious. Here he tells the story of a love that is on and off again, and on again, and off. Although, it centers on the character played by Ben Affleck and the two women with which has relationships. But, I don’t think it is about his character. Affleck’s role is more like that of a documentarian who appears in his own documentary. He’s mostly off camera, and when he is on camera it is only to push the direction this way or that, but the film is not really about him.

The real subject of the film to me seems to be the Olga Kurylenko character. The two seem to meet in Paris. She’s French. He’s American. She has a daughter from a previous relationship. Their’s is a whirlwind romance. He transplants her and her daughter to the Midwest of America. Then things start going sour. The daughter, who likes the man at first, then tires of America and wants to go back to Paris to live with her real father. The relationship starts falling apart. He starts seeing another woman from his past. But that goes sour too.  She goes back to Paris. He misses her. She comes back. But there’s no patching things up. She cheats on him. It is never really meant to be.

I’m really not sure what Malick is getting at in this one. That’s often a problem with Malick, although not one I’ve really struggled with before. He doesn’t tell this story in the simple terms I’ve laid forth here. There is little dialogue. The whole thing is images and emotion. Perhaps that’s exactly what he’s getting at. It seems like a lot of effort for a failed love story, however. Is there some sort of societal message he’s trying to convey? Some sort of philosophy about love in this global age? If there is, I’m not quite seeing it.

Much of the imagery depicts the couples’ flirtations in nature. There’s a great deal of the lovers walking through landscapes, dancing through the grass, and putting their arms up toward the sky. I couldn’t help a chuckle or two at seeing Ben Affleck behave this way. It seems to me he’s a little old for all of this. Kurylenko is able to pull it off with her youthful beauty, but Affleck has won an Oscar (albeit he filmed this before that happened), and expressing love in this way is something done before the experience of life has taught you better. Yes, when I was in college, this movie would’ve expressed what I felt about love in many ways. Today, I’m wondering how he finds the time to frolic in the fields. When Richard Gere behaves this way in Malick’s second film “Days of Heaven”, he is much younger and has freed himself from the shackles of factory work in the cities, plus he’s truly in love. His tragedy comes from a particular situation rather than vagaries of the heart.

Why is Affleck in Paris in the first place? This movie would seem to have you believe it was to fall in love this precisely the way depicted here. Back in the U.S. he seems to be some sort of environmental surveyor, as he walks through muck around a housing development and climbs through dirt moving equipment. This is not a person who frolics anymore. Perhaps that is why the relationship is doomed. And yet, it is doomed in a dynamically beautiful film, so… I’d watch it again, just for the visuals.

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