I have never been so divided on a film: Terrence Malick’s “To The Wonder” is a beautiful experiment in cinematography and sound, but it also looks and feels like an extended perfume commercial. Malick has a reputation of extreme privacy and is very exclusive when choosing which film projects to work on. “To The Wonder” continues his fascination with achieving some sort of transcendental existentialism on film that was established in “Tree of Life”. Whether or not Malick achieves this is up for debate. “To The Wonder” is an experimental film that borders on pretentious and is too ambiguous for a mainstream audience, but I can’t help but be intrigued by this poetically abstract style.
Examination of Love and Life
The central plot focuses on the relationship between Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko). Neil meets Marina in France where they fall in love, and Neil asks Marina to come to America with him. The film chronicles their relationship from moments of intense joy, to separation and isolation, and the complication of Neil’s old friend, Jane (Rachel McAdams). Intercut with this main story is the life of a local priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) as he tries to reach out to members of the community who are troubled or seek forgiveness. “To The Wonder” is an examination of human relationships and the status of outsiders in a new place.
The Camera as an Artist’s Tool
The actual plot of “To The Wonder” is not the main focus, and instead it seems as if Malick is trying to evoke an overall emotional reaction. The camera is used like a paintbrush, sweeping through scenes in broad strokes, and hovering on certain aspects of the image to add texture and emphasis. The camera is fluid and mobile in a way that is not common in most films and seems to be a sort of tribute to the abstract-expressionist filmmakers of the 1960s and ’70s. The overall effect of this camerawork gives the film a certain mystical quality, even when scenes take place in a grocery store or a prison.
Genius or Indulgent?
That being said, as impressive and unusual as the camera work was, the techniques were heavily repeated. The first time a circular pan is used as Neil and Marina interact in an intimate embrace, it is romantic and magical; by the third time this camera movement is used, the scene has lost all of its emotional impact. The film’s sense of time is distorted, as Malick tries to explore universal themes, and the suspension in time added to the film’s style. However, the effect is almost ruined with the overly repetitive nature of the images; there can only be so many sequences of a couple running through fields in one film, and I would say five is overdoing it.
“To The Wonder” hinges on the conventions of experimental and mainstream filmmaking and is going to have a hard time finding an audience. Malick’s use of cinematography, sound, and lighting is a technical achievement that has created a graceful, beautiful film, even when the use of the techniques becomes indulgent. This film places style over substance, which could be problematic, but in Malick’s quest to uncover the nuances of life, it all somehow works. Most will find “To The Wonder” dry and meandering, but its use of unconventional filmmaking techniques will speak to a niche audience with an appreciation (and patience) for abstract films.