By Dan Metcalf
Clipper Film Correspondent
To The Wonder (Magnolia Pictures)
Rated R for some sexuality/nudity.
Starring Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem, Tatiana Chiline, Romina Mondello, Tony O'Gans, Charles Baker.
Written and directed by Terrence Mallick.
Art is truly is in the eye of the beholder. Some can gaze upon a Jackson Pollack painting and become moved by its complex, chaotic color, while others see it as a bunch of paint dribbles. The same can be said of a few celebrated filmmakers like Terrence Mallick. The reclusive director is known for only a handful of films, usually waiting more than a decade between projects. Mallick is also known for his grandiose, beautifully photographed films that depict very little action and a lion's share of deep metaphorical meaning. No one knows why, but Mallick has broken away from his pattern of making a movie every decade and has produced To The Wonder only one year after his Oscar-nominated Tree of Life. Word has it he's already working on another film due for release next year. I'm not sure why Mallick has decided to become so prolific, but if you like his kind of filmmaking, I suppose that's good news.
To The Wonder is the story of Neil (Ben Affleck) an environmental inspector who meets and falls in love with Marina (Olga Kurylenko) while on a business trip to France. The lovers wander around Paris and other French landmarks in complete romantic bliss, prancing about like deranged love addicts. Neil eventually takes Marina and her preteen daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) back home to live with him in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. At first, the bliss continues, but Neil and Marina's burning love eventually fades, which leaves a French woman and her daughter without much to do in Bartlesville. Marina befriends a Catholic priest named Father Quintana, a man struggling with his own faith while trying to serve the religious needs of his parish.
With their relationship on the rocks, Marina heads back to France with Tatiana, and Neil hooks up with a his old flame Jane (Rachel McAdams). Jane and Neil go through the same bliss at first, but their love flames out too.
Meanwhile back in France, Marina decides she doesn't want to live there anymore and asks Neil to help her get a permanent visa to the US. She returns to Oklahoma, marries Neil, and the two feel the spark of love again – until Marina succumbs to temptation in a tryst with a carpenter at a motel.
As Marina and Neil struggle to keep things together, Father Quintana keeps serving his congregation despite his doubts.
Like other art forms, To The Wonder is not for everybody, and probably not Mallick's best work (although I liked it better than The Thin Red Line). That said, I liked To The Wonder for its beauty and metaphorical comparison between the blissful love one feels at the beginning of a relationship and the euphoric feelings one has when converted through a religious experience – along with the effort it takes to maintain such love and devotion after the honeymoon is over.
One problem I had with To The Wonder is what appears to be an environmental message thrown into the mix, which seems like an attempt to condemn industrialism. It seems like odd placement in a movie about love, or perhaps there's a metaphor I'm missing.
Some may also have a problem with Mallick's style, which leans heavily on a lot of Steady-cam shots as the main characters sweep across grassy fields, like so many design perfume commercials. He also refused to use any artificial lighting in the movie, which gives it a darker, yet compelling tone. Mallick's understated dialogue also keeps Ben Affleck from having to mutter too many words, and some may see that as a good thing.
Mallick's method and eye for finding beauty (even in Bartlesville) from the simplest scenery is certainly more art than entertainment, but like those who enjoy listening to Debussy while reading the newspaper on a lazy Sunday afternoon, To The Wonder can be enjoyed by those who like unwind and partake of the meaty substance of art, rather than the junk food of most movies. The real beauty is that most people can enjoy both at different times and while in different moods.