Art is a funny business. For some, it’s a way of making money, pure and simple. For others, it’s a way of making a statement: this is who I am; this is what I believe in; this is how I see the world. And for a few, perhaps more than a few, it is the diary of their search for meaning, for truth, for themselves and where they fit in this random, chaotic world of ours. What is if for Terrence Malick? I would not presume to answer that question. But I am very glad that he has chosen to share his vision publicly.
My only problem with his previous film, The Tree of Life, was not so much a problem with the film as it was a problem I had with context. He had cast Brad Pitt as the father; but the characterisation Pitt chose for the role was very similar to that which he had employed in playing Aldo the Apache in Tarrentino’s Inglourious Basterds. That was a sado-comic role and all through The Tree of Life, when Brad Pitt was on screen, I was either waiting for a punch line, or waiting for him to take out his Bowie knife and whip off someone’s scalp. So throughout The Tree of Life, I found it difficult to take Pitt’s portrayal of the tortured father seriously.
Malick’s latest film, To the Wonder, has opened to a cool-to-lukewarm reception from the critics. IMDb has awarded it 3 stars (out of 5); Rotten Tomatoes only gives it 2 (also out of 5). Locally, David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz of At the Movies (ABC TV) gave it a combined 4.5 stars out of 10. Consequently, I went to see the film with cautious expectations.
When we encounter an art work, whether it is a novel or a poem, a piece of music or sculpture, a painting or a photograph – or as in this case, a film – a connection occurs (or not) between the viewer and the work itself; and the depth and breadth of this connection conditions how we react to the film. If we experience a strong, positive connection, we will probably love the film. Experiencing no connection might leave us feeling ambivalent about the film but probably with a leaning to the negative. I don’t know if it is even possible to have a negative connection but if it is, our opinion of that film is almost certain to be negative too. So, the artist (in this case the film maker) is taking a chance in putting his (or her) work on public display. There is no way to predict how an audience of strangers will react to one’s work; but critics we trust will usually steer us away from films that we are probably not going to like.
Fortunately, I refused to be steered away from To the Wonder. I saw it, despite its poor reviews, because I trusted Terrence Malick more than I trusted my advisors. And I came out of the cinema feeling amply rewarded and slightly mystified. Are there two films with the same title in distribution at the moment; and had I seen the other one by mistake?
I connected with the film immediately and it’s not difficult to understand why. I will automatically feel drawn to any film set in Paris, in locations that are familiar to me. But Malick inadvertently built on that happenstance with his lyrical direction and the fluid photography of Emmanuel Lubezki. As the camera followed the relationship between the characters of Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) it seemed to move with them, participating in their choreography, caressing them with the same tenderness that they were exhibiting towards each other. If I had been delighted to see Paris as their stage, I was entranced by how the camera transported me onto that stage with them.
When the action moved to le Mont Saint-Michel, a subtle shift in the photography took place. The colours became slightly more muted. The camera appeared to want to dance but the couple seemed a little less eager. They were becoming stuck in the mud.
But my second connection with the film, and an even stronger one, came in the next scene when the action was relocated to Oklahoma in the United States. The culture shock that Marina feels when transported to this foreign place was something I had experienced three years earlier when my son and I travelled from Barcelona, in Spain, to Kansas City Missouri. Missouri and Oklahoma are joined at the hip and Malick’s evocation of the US mid-west is exactly as I recall it. From the lyrically romantic way he captured Paris, the camera is suddenly stilled and there is a great sense of emptiness. The house Neil, Marina and Tatiana (Marina’s daughter) live in is barely furnished. They seemed to have hardly unpacked. Their garden is a vast expanse of lawn. Everywhere, there is empty space. And I believe this is the key to the film. The story is being told primarily in images and camera technique; and only occasionally are we allowed to eavesdrop on the conversations between the characters.
At this point, I am tempted to say what I think the film is about; but I’m not going to do that because it is not important what I think; and I hold that everyone who sees it should interpret it according to their own, personal frame of reference. Have I understood the film as Malick intended it to be understood? Probably not. Does that matter? Not at all. This is art; not documentary. It is intended to make us think; not to inform us; to think about how we would react to the situation in which the actors find themselves. And it would not be right for me to impose my interpretation of the film on others because the way I reacted only applies to me, not to anyone else.
My only criticism of the film is that the music credits at the end are too dense on the screen and roll round too quickly to be read; and I make this criticism because after the images, I feel that the music also plays an important role in creating the mood and tone of the unfolding story. And whilst knowing the names of the pieces used will not necessarily enhance my understanding or appreciation of the film, I am interested enough to want to know that.
I think this is a film one has to submit to in order to enjoy fully. There is beauty everywhere; even in the bleak, empty landscapes of rural Oklahoma. But there is a great deal of pain also: the pain of people searching and not finding; of connecting at a superficial level but not deeply, nor in a way that will endure. This is true of Neil and his partners; but it is also true of Father Quintana (Xavier Bardem) whose story, whose search, whose desolation is told in parallel to the main thread. But in the end, Malick has shown what many other directors seem to have forgotten, or have chosen to ignore: that film is primarily a visual art form and the image is of paramount importance. Each image seems to have been chosen meticulously, almost as though it too were a character, cast in a part with a role to play in telling the story. And in writing this I find that I want to see the film again; because I feel that there is much more to it than can be taken in in just one viewing.
Would Terrence Malick approve of this review? I don’t know. I suspect that he wouldn’t care one way or the other because he appears to be one of those directors with the courage to put his art above public opinion or critical acclaim. And I will reiterate what I said at the beginning: I am so glad that he has chosen to share his vision publicly.