Movie Review: 'To the Wonder' looks at relationships opaquely

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald
"To the Wonder" opens with a couple, Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) in love in Paris. Tres romantique, n'est-ce pas?

Here's the good news: moviegoers may actually understand parts of Terrence Malick's new film, "To the Wonder." Here's the bad news: they may not want to.

More than likely, they will have vacated their seats long before the ending credits roll as many did during Malick's last film, "The Tree of Life," a movie that was incomprehensible to everyone but the director and a smattering of intellectuals. One of my fellow critics tried to explain the film to me, saying he finally understood it after watching it for the fourth time. Now that's dedication.

Anyway, audiences should be able to relate "To the Wonder," at least on the surface, as it involves relationships. Well, I think it does. The film opens with a couple, Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) in love in Paris. Tres romantique, n'est-ce pas? Their names are never mentioned during the film, perhaps, because Neil and Marina represent Everyman and Everywoman, respectively. Who knows? Malick loves to play with the ball of confusion.

As with "The Tree of Life," "To the Wonder" contains voice-overs. A lot of voice-overs. In a lot of languages, but mostly in French delivered by Marina as she ponders the meaning of love, life and split ends. The film engages in a lot of this pondering. It's like the Ponderosa of ponderousness. Just don't expect much dialogue, meaningful or otherwise. There might be a total of 10 lines spoken throughout the entire movie, and Affleck doesn't have many of them. In fact, his character hardly says anything at all. What he does is brood. The film engages in a lot of brooding, too, as characters brood about love, life and questionable career choices.

The film's title comes from a visit that Neil and Marina make to Mont Saint-Michel. As they walk around a cloister, Marina speaks the phrase in a voice-over. Its meaning? Don't have a clue. The mount is a wondrous place, and love can be a wondrous experience, and a movie that makes sense can be wondrous thing.

At least H2O aficionados should enjoy the film as Malick devotes plenty of screen time to water. I'm sure it symbolizes something. But what? During the Mount Saint-Michel scene, he shows Neil and Marina frolicking outside the island as the tide comes in. Perhaps the tide symbolizes relationships. You know, the tide comes in and out like people fall in and out of love. Man, that's so deep. We later see a sea turtle swimming in the ocean. Perhaps that symbolizes a comeback for Yertle the Turtle.

Before you can say "sacre bleu," Neil, Marina and Marina's 10-year-old daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) have moved to Oklahoma (again, information preened only from program notes). This relocation, of course, begs the philosophical question, "How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree?" Apparently, Neil works in the Sooner state detecting groundwater contamination, or something like that. So, do you think Neil and Marina's idyllic liaison might start to unravel? Tatiana, for one, is not impressed with the new, sterile surroundings. "There's something missing," she says, a phrase that could sum up this entire film.

After Marina and Tatiana return to France, Neil takes up with a former flame Jane (Rachel McAdams). After the lovemaking, we get more pondering and brooding, this time with buffaloes and horses added to the scenery.

To continue the head-scratching marathon, Javier Bardem shows up as Father Quintana, a priest who ponders and broods in Spanish voice-overs. He seems to have lost his connection to God. You know, it's that's spiritual relationship. Or something like that. Bardem looks bored out of his clerical collar as he goes through the motions of sermonizing and visiting the poor.

And to thoroughly bamboozle your brain waves, Marina decides to return to Oklahoma.

But wait, there's more, Marina's Italian friend Anna (Romina Mondello) arrives in Oklahoma to tell her in Italian that, "there's nothing here." And who would disagree? One must assume that Marina understands Italian.

Other highlights of the film include multiple shots of Marina flitting through fields, supermarkets, here, there and everywhere. It's like she's trying out for the Bolshoi Ballet. Hey, maybe relationships are like a ballet. You got your pas de deuxs, your ups and downs. Or maybe relationships are like a Mounds bar. Sometimes you feel like a nut, and sometimes you don't.

Expects critics who adore this film -- they'll be same ones who adored "The Tree of Life" -- to wax poetic about its beauty. And yes, "To the Wonder" is a cinematographic feast for the eyes. Kudos to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. The movie impresses on the aural front, too, thanks to a killer soundtrack featuring the music of Berlioz, Tchaikovsky and Wagner, among others.

However, anyone expecting Malick, who reportedly drew inspiration for the film from some of his own experiences, to make any narrative sense will be mildly disappointed. "But you're missing the point, man," expect the intellectuals to say. And what's the point? "That it's all pointless, man." What about love? I feel a Heart song coming on. Well, Marina ends the film with a comment about that emotion. If you're still in the theater, you might appreciate it. I appreciate Malick, too. At least he doesn't make cookie-cutter films. They just need to come with Cliff Notes.

"To the Wonder" is rated R for some sexuality and nudity.  

"To the Wonder" Grade: C