The characters in Terrence Malick’s new picture, “To the Wonder,” are acutely aware that “something is missing,” as pointed out by the French woman’s daughter, Tatiana.
When Tatiana says this, Malick does not allow the characters to give voice to the reasons behind it. Instead, he conveys it plainly by showing people in empty houses.
The character is inside a house, but that house is empty of furniture. Even in those rooms with sparsely placed furniture, we can still feel that something is missing (The most richly decorated house in the movie is McAdams’ American woman’s ranch, but we only see its interior after Affleck’s American man has left her).
The tumultuous relationship between the American husband and French wife is suggested not just by silently passing each other in the hallways of their house, but by literally having the characters build and destroy their house. Inside their homes, they are always moving furniture, packing and unpacking. The more they move, the farther they grow apart.
I cannot remember if the names of any of the adult characters are said aloud in the film, which has so little dialogue as to make it a difficult one to respond to. There is hardly any dialogue, and the voiceover narration only reveals the characters’ internal conflict, affording us little to grab hold of.
That is one of the chief values of “To the Wonder,” I think, that Malick so carefully avoids giving us any ground to “consider” these characters or their situation – we can only sympathize with those sharing those vulnerable parts of themselves, to feel with them.
If Malick goes too far, if Malick goes beyond what we are comfortable with in the narrative and language of motion pictures, I think it is because we are often uncomfortable around anyone whose nerve endings are so bare. With each new picture, Malick taps deeper into what you might call ”cinematography of sensibility.”
Jean Cocteau was one of the first to recognize the power of the motion picture in this way; that the motion pictures, if rightly oriented, allowed filmmakers and an audience to converse in a way that spoken or written language could not pull off:
“What Jules de Noailles said (recounted by Liszt) is true: ‘You will see one day that it is hard to speak about anything to anyone.’ Yet it is equally true that each person takes in or rejects the sustenance that we offer, and that the people who absorb it, do so in their own way; and this it is that determines the progress of a work through the centuries, because if a work were to send back only a perfect echo, the result would be a kind of pleonasm, an inert exchange, a dead perfection.”
The value of “To the Wonder” is more than that the film and Malick’s previous “Tree of Life” seem more than a little autobiographical. What we take away from the picture is more than the conclusion that Malick’s pictures are becoming intensely personal.
When an elderly man cleaning the church’s stained glass window in “To the Wonder” speaks to the priest (Javier Bardem), he tells him that it is not enough to feel the “light of the sun,” its warmth, but that the light is spiritual and that is what you must learn to feel.
In the same way, Malick’s movies have become more and more about not just seeing the “perfect echo” Cocteau refers to, but about creating something to be consumed, absorbed and shared. For Malick, the movies are not just an opportunity for us to meet figures whose problems and situations resemble our own, but to achieve the end of cinema Andrei Tarkovsky described as a “selfless act of communion” between human souls and the divine.
It would be easy to say that the characters in “To the Wonder” are bound up in their own ways, some variation of self-love. I am not sure that sort of antithesis between “selfish” and “selfless” even applies to the characters in Malick’s picture. Malick is pushing beyond the psychological into the religious, into a vision of the world where identity is more vertical than horizontal, to put it crudely. Identity is relationship to the divine in Malick-speak.
The priest says he cannot feel God’s presence like he used to, and is unable to enter in and connect with other human beings and he turns down the opportunity to let others in (the elderly man cleaning the windows asks the priest if he is lonely “because he never goes out”).
Malick shows this by having the priest walk up to several houses, but the priest decides not to enter them even when the door is wide open. The priest refuses to let anyone in, ignoring the woman knocking on his door while he stands in the shadows inside.
Jon Baskin and Richard Brody have both written very insightful pieces into the characters in “To the Wonder.” With so much of their dialogue and narrative stripped, the characters are more like archetypes, and Baskin and Brody both do a fine job examining what is behind those archetypes.
In particular, Brody looks at the religious aspects of the characters, the tension and merging of Protestant and Roman Catholic aesthetic in “To the Wonder.” You can (should) read it here.
But with so little shown of the American male character (Ben Affleck), Baskin surfs on Brody’s wave to address some of the interesting things going on behind the American male in the picture (there is also something to be said about the two male characters, the American and the priest, who are both “leaving” people):
“Yet he [Ben Affleck’s character] represents, as Richard Brody has rightly noted, the American or Protestant spirit — what Max Weber described as the “spirit of capitalism” — pared down and stripped to its essentials. As he lumbers through Paris with Marina [Kurylenko’s French woman], we can see a muffled happiness in him, but it is a happiness never free from the worry of what such happiness may cost. . . . After some time (we have no idea how long), Jane [Rachel McAdams’ American woman] begins to speak of marriage, with predictable result. “Do you know what you want?” she asks Neil, half hopefully, half forlornly. But Neil has never known what he wants, only that he wants.”
Baskin’s full review can be found here.
Baskin also briefly addresses one of the more important facets of “To the Wonder,” a largely unseen dimension of romantic love in the movies: “the film advances one of the most persuasive indictments I know of romantic or secular love as the matching of desires.”
This is not just a Christian censure of “pleasure . . . lust” as McAdams’ American woman says. What Jane says may hold some water in the picture, but there is a lot more here than just that, Malick says. The movie is not just about the American woman or even about the American man hurting his French girlfriend-then-wife.
When the picture opens, the French woman is freely skipping about. When the couple moves to the American Midwest, there is no fence around their house and she continues to express her joy dancing in the open fields.
However, as it goes on, there are fences around the house. After watching the movie, a friend astutely observed that both the French woman’s husband and her carpenter lover were “closing her in.” The husband is seen working on the fence while the carpenter puts shutters on the windows that previously let in the sunlight (foreshadowed earlier in the picture when Tatiana plays hopscotch across the shadows of the window’s panels).
The French woman’s desire for freedom is expressed again when she is on the roof of a building in the city, watching the birds fly above her. She follows them, but she is restricted by the roof’s space. She cannot join the “free birds” without falling.
Malick is addressing the disillusion of the pursuit of desire, of happiness, of “being free” as one of the French woman’s friends tells her. No matter how often we make the pursuit of desire an end to itself, we will find that “something is missing.” Thus for Malick, we are pursuing the wrong thing, oriented in the wrong direction.
This is where we begin to see some of Malick’s true purpose: searching for pure language.
Throughout “To the Wonder,” several languages are represented. The American characters speak in standard American English, but the French woman and priest speak their voiceovers in French and Spanish respectively. A townsperson uses sign language in one brief scene. The elderly man who advises the priest to feel the spiritual light also speaks in tongues.
That man breaks into tongues, then explains its function to the priest. He tells the priest that he is speaking in a way that the other person cannot understand but it is also a language the devil cannot understand either.
This, I think, represents Malick’s aim as well – finding a language freed from the corrupt natures of man and those would tempt him. Our language is so often encumbered with double meanings that we have to find some other mode.
Everyday language is always deceptive at some level. The man speaking in tongues found a language that does not deceive other men and the devil so much as it allows man to commune purely, innocently, genuinely with the divine.
It is no mistake then that after Malick has shown us scenes of the priest delivering sermons and a mother and daughter talking through Skype (representing the one-way and two-way modes of communication between humans in that order), we should see the penultimate end of the picture dressed up with the Lorica of St. Patrick.
When the priest recites the Lorica, he is not really making its liturgical language his own as much as he is letting its liturgical language become the best expression of his own. He is using the language of worship to define his identity. His recitation of that specific portion of the Lorica (“Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me…”) places him not just in communication with the divine, but in existence with it.
But Malick’s search for a pure language also applies to his cinematography, the way he crafts a narrative in the most simple, unmixed visuals.
With so much of “To the Wonder” being shot in the interior of houses, I could not help but think of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Contempt.” The difference between the two directors is vast, but like Godard, Malick here builds a motion picture unbound from the limits of strict narrative and approaches what the motion pictures first offered with Cocteau: making what was beyond, removed, overlooked in human experience a human experience itself.