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Who Is Ben Affleck in Terrence Malick's 'To the Wonder'?

by Caryn James
April 11, 2013 9:16 AM
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To the Wonder

Like all Terrence Malick's films, To the Wonder is art at its purest. This impressionistic take on a man (Ben Affleck) as he goes through a major relationship with Maria (Olga Kurylenko) and a lesser fling with Jane ( Rachel McAdams), is told  almost entirely in voiceover, which blends with poetic images, a range of classical music, bits of dialogue. The actual conversations are so rare you can count them. Despite its clarity of purpose, though, it is not the best example of an art film you'll ever see, and far from the best Terrence Malick.

To the Wonder may be Malick's latest bold attempt to redefine what narrative cinema can be, but it is a pallid descendent of his classic Days of Heaven, which shares a controlling use of voiceover, an enigmatic nearly silent hero (Sam Shepard) and beautifully photographed scenes of the open land.

The primary voice is Marina's, who begins her narrative among images of Old World grandeur. We first see her in the rapturous early days of her affair with Affleck's character. (He's not named in the film, but the credits seem to think we know he's Neil).  They walk moodily along the beach, and ascend to Mont St. Michel, as she explains, "we climbed the steps to the wonder." They traipse through the Luxembourg Gardens in the rain with her young daughter, and soon they are in Oklahoma, where the film becomes as flat as the landscape.  

The voiceover  -- Neil and others leap in from time to time -- suggests the disconnectedness of all their lives. She's bored; he's more bored. There are many scenes of her walking through wheat fields. When she goes back to France, he briefly takes up with Jane and then Jane walks through wheat fields. Nearby, is a church and Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a priest with a voiceover of his own and a crisis of faith. Sometimes he and Marina cross paths.

Malick is clearly rejecting the novelistic narrative thrust and deeply drawn characters we might expect on screen. As he did far more successfully in Days of Heaven, he asks us to read into his images, the way we do with the more compressed genres of painting and poetry. And this film doesn't seem self-indulgent, the way Tree of Life did when its long, impressionistic creation-of--the-world sequence shattered our attachment to the family history we'd been seeing (in nearly as much voiceover and poetry as To the Wonder).  This feels more like Malick has made a series of serious, inexplicable misjudgments.

The characters are so vaguely sketched they become hollow. Where the farmer played by Shepard in Days of Heaven was quiet and enigmatic, the character of Neil is empty. Not Affleck's fault; he was given so little to work with. Who is this conspicuously unhappy man who hardly speaks? We observe him at work as an inspector testing soil for contaminants: is he a crusader or just a guy who needs a job? Did he ever love Marina or was he just swept along by her devotion?

The voiceovers themselves are often as vapid and as precious as the film's pretty but cliched images. "You thought we had forever. That time didn't exist," Marina's voiceover says. We see water flowing, sun shining on it. Malick has always been a better director than writer, but such generic images are not what you expect  from someone with his visionary eye.

He does creates a trajectory, from the birth of the love affair to the end. Near the film's conclusion, Bardem's character visits the sick and old and dying, and the life-to-death cycle creates a tone of sad despair,  of impossible love. The final image, of Mont St Michel again, reminds us how wonder always fades in the light of reality. There are still touches of Malick's sublime art here, but they are impossibly outweighed by ordinary earthbound failure.

Here's a trailer with Bardem's voiceover, which gives a skewed sense of the film, and make its theme of love sound more cogent than it really is.

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