23 February 2013

So Wonderfully Wonderfully Wonderfully Pretty

After my disappointment with The Tree of Life, you might think I would steer clear of Terrence Malick for a while, but when I saw the trailer for his latest movie, To the Wonder, last week, I thought it looked interesting. Besides, it stars Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, a Bond Girl and a Bond villain; how deep could it get? Pretty deep, it turned out, but I enjoyed it more than its predecessor. It's easy to see why, however, the Telegraph subeditor got confused and captioned a still from the movie as Tree of Wonder.

Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) frolicking near Mont St Michel in To the Wonder. Photo via here.

As the film opens, we see a happy couple skipping and dancing around Paris. As you do. They take a trip to Mont St Michel, a tiny, hilly island off the coast of Normandy, known in France as "the Wonder of the West." The couple climb the steps to the wonder ("Hey! That's the name of the movie") and fall more deeply in love with each other. They frolic on the silty beach near the island before returning to Paris. The woman (Olga Kurylenko) is a Ukrainian who has made her home in Paris. Her name is Marina, although we never hear her name in the movie. Nor do we hear the name of her lover Neil (Affleck), or most of the other characters. Judging by the production notes, the two UK press contacts for StudioCanal may have donated their names to the characters.

Marina also has a young daughter from a previous relationship, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), and when Marina decides to move to the US to be with Neil, Tatiana comes too, and for a while it looks like they might form a happy family of three. Neil is an environmental inspector. The production notes say he wanted to be a writer, but there is no evidence for this anywhere in the film. In fact, the production notes seem to be talking about an entirely different film, because we learn almost nothing about him: not his back story and not even what he thinks or wants. We find out a little more about Marina—mainly that she is erratic and unstable, by turns filled with love and a desire to dance and run through cornfields and laugh, and sad, bleak and difficult—but she isn't always all that likeable. She is more likeable when she's moving around—dancing, skipping or leaping—than when she's static and sad. Meanwhile, Neil bumps into an old friend (McAdams), nameless in the movie but called Jane in the credits, and Marina feels the need to confess to the lonely, expat local priest (Javier Bardem), although don't get me wrong: this is not Closer, by any means. That would require more of a plot. And some dialogue.

There is more of a storyline than in The Tree of Life, but we hear from the characters almost exclusively via wistful, dreamy voiceovers. Their inner monologues are certainly a lot more philosophical and vague than most people's. This would be less irritating if the film described in the production notes didn't sound more up my street: more action, less guesswork and more character development (read: some character development). To the Wonder is a very, very beautiful film, for sure. It's ethereal and Affleck and Kurylenko are really good together and it isn't their fault I'm such a philistine and want a little more context and dialogue in my films. It felt like a lot of McAdams' scenes had been cut—this film isn't about a love triangle—and I feel like cutting Bardem's character would have affected the theme but not the plot.

I don't need to be spoon fed, but our two leads were such ciphers that To the Wonder left me feeling frustrated. I wanted to know more about Marina and Neil. I wanted to be able to care about what happened to them and to be able to root for them, but as in I Give It a Year, I just couldn't. (In this film it was the long, sweeping shots of a beautiful woman dancing in various scenic—and less scenic, in the case of Target—locations, that distracted from the relationship rather than the crude humour of I Give It a Year.) On leaving the cinema, I was asked to fill in a questionnaire about my thoughts and expectations of the film. One question asked me to select which adjectives best described the movie; one was romantic. The production notes also summarize it as a "romantic drama." I would counter that it is neither romantic, nor very dramatic. Thought-provoking, gorgeously shot, sensitively acted, dreamy and melancholy would be a lot more accurate.

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