I’ve just come back from seeing Terrence Malick’s new film To the Wonder. If you’re going to see it, stop reading now, and come back and talk to me when you get out of the cinema.
As a point of recommendation (since I have never seen more people walk out of a film than did Tree of Life, but To the Wonder had a fair few): if you like Malick, you should see To the Wonder (well, you probably will). If you have liked Malick but weren’t sure about Tree of Life, maybe To the Wonder won’t be your thing, or maybe you should boldly go try it. If you haven’t liked Malick in the past, To the Wonder is probably not going to convert you. That is, unless the reason you didn’t like previous Malick films was that they didn’t go far enough into lyric, existential, photo-poetry.
I love Terrence Malick films. There’s no one better, to my mind, at filming beauty (of nature, humanity, humanity-in-nature) and at showing the beauty that exists in the grubbier, uglier parts of life.
His films float at the edges of my mind for days, tap-tap-tapping away at an instinctive level, where my heart knows I like them (and then ends up loving them) but I can’t fully explain why, because they baffle at my brain, making sense in drips and moments (like in the Lake Isle of Innisfree, where Yeats writes ‘…for peace comes dropping slow‘).
To the Wonder is a lyrical, photographic, poem. There’s almost no dialogue, and very little voiceover. There are a few moments where you become aware of the music, but it never flies you away in the way that Malick lets it in Tree of Life.
It’s about love, and the balance between the heights of wonder and the mundane-ness (even banality) of daily life, and about faith, and the balance between the heights of being aware of the ‘Love that loves’ (as Javier Bardem’s character, a Catholic priest, describes it) and the bafflement that comes when God feels absent. It’s ostensibly about Ben Affleck’s relationship with Olga Kurylenko, and a bit about his relationship with Rachel McAdams (you don’t get to know the characters names until the credits, so they’re Ben and Olga and Rachel, ok) – but to me it feels like Javier is the core, and that somehow, what the film is about comes in two of his lines. One of these is in a sermon, where he’s talking about choice – and he says, Christ asks us to choose. You can say yes, or you can say no, because you can make a mistake and repent and move on, but if you fail to choose you fail to move, or grow, or live. And then later he says:
You shall love, whether you like it or not.
And that, for me, is the story of Ben and Olga and Rachel – especially Ben, who doesn’t know how to choose – is scared to, in case he gets it wrong. The women in his life are far braver, because they understand that you love, whether you like it or not, and they choose to love, and they strive for the wonder – and in Olga’s case, don’t know how to deal with the lack of the wonder in the every day. Ben doesn’t know how to do do that or deal with that, and has to grow into it. I think he does – in his time with Javier towards the end.
The film is about the way you need to balance living in the the sublime and the mundane. Olga can do the former, Javier can do the latter. At the end he prays “Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ in my heart. Show me how to seek You,” – missing the Spirit in the beauty of the world that was created all around him. But the way to balance isn’t to hide from the one in the other, and avoid the need to make the connections between the two, which Ben tries to do. It’s to do what Rachel does – to choose to chase the moonbeam, but also to live in her every day. She can make those connections, in a way that Ben can’t – and so she moves on and he stays still.