An intensely personal film by Terrence Malick (“The Tree of Life,” “The Thin Red Line”), “To the Wonder” explores the lives and loves of four people, to the near complete exclusion of everyone else. The films revels in solitude and celebrates seclusion with what seems like voluptuous ardor.
France and Oklahoma are the primary seclusion locations — not just visually arresting backdrops (the camera work by Emmanuel Lubezki is stunning and worth the ticket price alone) but vast cocoons that envelop and confine the characters in flawless tableaux of breathtaking beauty. It’s impossible to forget the scene with Jane (Rachel McAdams) in a floral print dress, her back to the camera as her silhouette seems to melt into a golden field, wheat stalks waving in the wind like magic wands.
“To the Wonder” may come off at times as an exercise in artistic indulgence: Clearly Malick had an agenda that needed sorting and uses the film for this purpose. He doesn’t make it seem like self-indulgence though; I found that the sense of privilege in sharing in the experience ultimately overrode most of my negative reactions. Still, it requires some patience to get into the wonders at work; the film leaves so many stones unturned and puzzle pieces missing. Asking “Why?” of almost any scene is futile. Apparently Malick feels that we’re along for the ride, and if there’s any discomfort along the way, we should just ignore it. Fair enough, since the landscape unfolding before our eyes is ultimately more important than mere plot logistics.
Malick has assembled an intriguing cast. Ben Affleck plays Neil, an American enamoured with France and with a Ukaranian single mom, Marina (Olga Kurylenko), whom he meets in Paris. They visit Mont Saint-Michel and take long, intimate walks on the beach. For each of them, it feels like a perfect love, one to last the rest of their lives. On the strength of this, Marina decides to take her 10-year-old daughter to Neil’s hometown in Oklahoma, get married and live happily ever after.
It rarely works out that way, in the movies and in real life. Even as he questions why his love for Marina has stalled, Neil takes up with ex-girlfriend Jane, and Marina plunges headlong into despair. The only person she can talk to is Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a Catholic priest and fellow European exile with issues of his own; he has lost a big chunk of his faith and is in great pain. Marina wanders the Oklahoma prairie, trying to recapture the freedom and sense of wonder in love that she felt on the beach at Mont Saint-Michel.
As it happens, the film was the last that Chicago Sun Times critic Roger Ebert reviewed before his death in April, and in it he wrote how movies shouldn’t have to explain everything. Indeed, “To the Wonder” is about the beauty and terror of inexplicable emotions, and though it takes a certain patience to deploy the imagination and be satisfied with non-answers, the rewards to the senses and the soul are considerable.
It’s hard to say whether “To the Wonder” has a coherent ending. The lack of closure reveals a conclusion of sorts: Happiness is made up of a series of moments, elusive as sunlight and impossible to hold even as Marina tries to, in the cusp of her hand.