Tuesday, September 11, 2012

TIFF 2012: To the Wonder

Kurylenko and Affleck

To the Wonder (U.S., 2012) by Terence Mallick, 112 minutes
Tuesday, September 11, 2012, Princess of Wales, 3p.m.

This will be a challenge. A very big challenge to review but here goes. I saw this film at the same time as two other friends saw it. Both disliked it. A great deal I believe.
I think Mallick approaches his work almost as a poet does (thanks dear friend C who also saw the film for the analogy). Here is one definition of poetry:
“A piece of writing that partakes of the nature of both speech and song that is nearly always rhythmical, usually metaphorical … Something that arouses strong emotions because of its beauty.”

Mallick creates beautiful images … obscure images with elliptical meanings. He doesn’t seem to care if you don’t “get it” (like many poets). He creates for himself and like-minded people. He creates gorgeous images. His images of nature often have a metaphorical meaning such as the natural occurrences in Tree of Life that symbolized the beginning or the end of life.

The plot of To the Wonder? Most of the film is a long monologue from the female perspective in French. The male protagonist is near silent. I think it’s about the dissipation of love, mostly from her perspective.

Boy (Ben Affleck as Neil) meets girl (Olga Kurylenko as Marina) in France. She is gorgeous with beautiful clothes and poetic gestures (she also has a precocious daughter). She’s like a child herself: she dances in the street, runs through meadows and forests like a nymph. She seduces him, entrances him. In short, she is a beautiful fantasy – part girl-child, part love goddess. She is clothed in rich reds and gray-blues and deep purples in sumptuous fabrics. She is part of nature, primal, richly hued, moody in temperament.

They fall in love. France is beautiful, magical, mystical. It’s certainly shot that way. Gorgeous, sensuous colours, close-ups of intricate architectural detail and landscapes. The camera work is sometimes frenzied as if the lovers cannot contain themselves and their excitement.

He decides to bring her to America (which I thought was Texas based on the number of oil rigs we see but it is Oklahoma). The boy’s world is cold, sterile and likely even poisonous (does this mean that their relationship has become poisoned too by the change in locale?). They live in a treeless suburban tract surrounded by possibly unsympathetic elements in the populace. The house is barren, virtually empty, forbidding to the viewer. His job seems to be to test the soil surrounding oil rigs that largely appears to be contaminated in very poor regions. The scenario is depressing. The people appear wounded and disfigured by difficult lives.

In America, which Marina was anxious to go to, she seems to change or perhaps he sees her more clearly, as a human being, not a goddess. He sees that her feet are made of clay. She is not divine but a deeply unhappy woman who is unable to adjust to this forbidding new world. What seems enchanting in their fantasy world in France is merely annoying and childish in his old world. He appears reluctant to marry and she returns to France with her daughter.

Jane (Rachel McAdams), a past lover, enters the picture. She seems more substantial. Still beautiful, still desirable, but somehow more real, more of Neil’s world - who could be more straight forward than a person named Jane? And yet they can’t seem to connect. Perhaps too much has transpired.

Marina and Neil reunite … perhaps they both think that she will be happier if they marry but she is not. Almost in a hypnotic state, she drifts into an unlikely act of infidelity that even puzzles the viewer as it seems so illogical, so wantonly stupid.

On the periphery is a priest in crisis (a handsomely pensive Javier Bardem) who fears that he lacks the true dedication, the sincerity, to perform his work. All three characters appear to have a crisis of confidence. The young couple believe in love as does the priest ... but love of a different order.

Affleck was chosen I think for a certain quality of stoic manliness. He speaks little (which is good, he is at his best with few words), presents an iconic image of masculinity, very much in the tradition of the highly principled American loner. He is stoic, strong but gentle.

Kurylenko is beautiful, fragile, easily hurt. I think the filmmaker acknowledges that she is a paper thin construction born of fantasy and lust. She can’t withstand too much scrutiny or strife or she crumples like a paper doll.

Not every piece of art requires that it be immediately understood or liked. I think Mr. Mallick would agree. On second thought, I don’t think he cares what I or anyone else think about his film. And that’s fine too.

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