Terrence Malick continues to take bold risks, courting ridicule and rapture in equal measure, with “To the Wonder,” his first full-on treatment of that oldest of movie subjects, romantic love. Staying in the semi-autobiographical vein of “The Tree of Life,” the suddenly industrious writer-director finds tenderness and beauty in a whisper-thin story of passion, marriage and betrayal that all but erases the line between the secular and the sacred. Those who can’t abide Malick’s spiritual reveries will steer clear, but flaws and all, this is ravishing, distrib-worthy work from a filmmaker who hasn’t lost his capacity to move and surprise.
The arrival of a new picture bearing Malick’s name just 15 months after his previous release is something few of his devotees would have dreamed possible a while ago, coming from a director who took a legendary 20-year hiatus between “Days of Heaven” and “The Thin Red Line.” Yet the fleet, intimate nature of this sixth feature, set entirely in the present day (another first), feels appropriate to its shorter gestation period and production schedule.
Although far less ambitious than “The Tree of Life,” a distinction that will likely be reflected commercially, “To the Wonder” nonetheless feels deeply connected to its predecessor, likewise employing glancing, impressionistic imagery and prayerful voiceover to wrap its characters in an intense miasma of spiritual inquiry. Perhaps the film’s most potentially divisive stroke is the direct connection it makes between romantic and Christian devotion, as Malick again draws on a chapter of his life, specifically his 1985-98 marriage to a Frenchwoman, laying personal history bare with an emotional nakedness that seems especially startling in light of his reclusive rep.
Opening with an atypical blast of rough, grainy homevideo footage, the film conjures the swooning ecstasy of a young relationship as Midwest native Neil (Ben Affleck) wanders the streets of Paris with local beauty Marina (Olga Kurylenko). Backed by Wagner, Haydn and other selections from the canon, Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera swirls freely around the lovers as they kiss on a bridge over the Seine; play with Marina’s young daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline); and take a side trip to the abbey of Mont Saint-Michel, a beautiful island off the coast of Normandy rightly known as “the Wonder of the West.”
The lyrical earnestness with which Malick enshrines the glory of love may provoke a spasm of embarrassment early on, approaching a well-worn cinematic subject with the ardency and naivete of an explorer stumbling on a new world. There’s beauty but also banality in aphorisms like “You lifted me from the ground” and “If you love me, there’s nothing else I need,” and Marina’s breathy French-language v.o. can’t help but occasionally flirt with Euro art-film parody.
But the flush of first love soon vanishes, along with any sense of vapidity, as Marina and Tatiana come to live with Neil in Bartlesville, Okla., whose wide, flat landscapes and golden wheat tones look straight out of “Badlands.” The couple’s new life together is happy but not entirely fulfilled, and the film, without breaking away from its elliptical, convulsive style, complicates the situation with remarkably concrete developments: Neil isn’t quite ready to commit, and Marina can’t marry him without breaking her Catholic vows to her wayward first husband.
When Marina heads back to Paris with Tatiana, Neil seeks momentary solace with an old classmate, Jane (Rachel McAdams), inspiring a brief narrative digression in which Malick seems at least as interested in the horses on Jane’s ranch as he is in the woman herself. Similarly hovering around the edges of the story is Neil’s priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who’s experiencing a deep crisis of faith. Once Marina returns and marries Neil in a civil ceremony, the film draws an intuitive if somewhat inelegant connection between Quintana’s diminished fervor and the challenges the newlyweds face as practical concerns overtake passion.
The beauty of “To the Wonder” is that it sees no contradiction between its characters’ religious beliefs and the universally recognizable stages they go through as a couple: infatuation and love, disillusionment and quarreling, the waning of passion and the lure of temptation. It’s perhaps Malick’s simplest, most relatable evocation yet of paradise lost, and if the helmer can be accused of idealizing his subject, he’s rendered it with a strong sense of emotional stakes.
The film’s intentions arguably would have been better served by actors less well known and/or less attractive than these two, particularly in light of the non-pro Oklahoma locals who appear when Quintana pays visits to the sick, poor and incarcerated. Still, the performances are enveloping and affecting; Affleck tamps down his movie-star affect as the gentle, taciturn Neil, and the radiant Kurylenko, whose Marina dominates the film’s perspective, gives a physically vivacious turn with a deeply melancholy core.
Never before has Malick explored sexuality so openly onscreen, and while the nudity is fairly discreet, the eroticism of flesh cradling flesh, even the gesture of a hand touching a shoulder, turns out to be a natural subject for Lubezki’s exquisitely graceful camerawork. If shots of characters running through overgrown fields (at one point encountering a random herd of bison) feel de rigueur by this point, the modern conveniences shown here, such as a Skype chat on Marina’s laptop, would seem to point Malick’s sensibility in a promising new direction.