To the Wonder
Inspirational (and insufferable) director Terrence Malick is back with a sometimes wonderful, sometimes sexual (and always unusual) rumination on love and faith.
"Love is …?"
Type those two words into a Google search, and you'll see some interesting suggestions:
"Love is patient."
"Love is in the air."
"Love is a battlefield."
But the question is not one that Google can easily answer. And the answers it does decipher often say more about the ones answering than about love itself. Teens. Parents. Lovers. Priests. Biologists. Philosophers. All have different takes on love. And, actually, many of them are "right."
Yet the depth of love, the scope, is still barely brushed by mere definition, or by language itself. Those things are buckets of sand suggesting a beach; curled-up leaves suggesting a forest. Love is an ocean that can sweep you away or crush you under or keep you, simply, afloat. Love is a song that can make you gasp and sing and remember and hate and dream and cry in the same measure. Love is the little things, the big things, the everythings.
Neil and Marina are in love—or so it would appear. They dance through France, together in bliss. Their relationship seems to hit its highest point on a visit to Mont St. Michel, the famed monastery that appears at high tide as a magical island floating in a shallow sea. So in love are they that Neil asks Marina and her daughter, Tatiana, to return with him to the United States—to the rivers and pastures of Oklahoma. And because she loves him so, Marina agrees.
Relationship (love), away from the magic of Mont St. Michel, proves difficult, though. Marina struggles with the language and the unfamiliar culture of the Midwest. Tatiana says she has no friends. Neil seems more distant. "There's something missing," Tatiana says, and Marina feels it too. And so they leave.
Once back "home," the two find that things have changed there just as they changed in America. It seems that they've changed. Tatiana moves in with her father. Marina wanders the cold streets of Paris alone. "I feel stripped bare," she says. "I can't take it here anymore." She wants to go back to Oklahoma. And this time she wants Neil to marry her.
But Neil has found someone else—Jane, a rancher's daughter. He seems connected with her in a way that he wasn't with Marina. He seems happy.
Amazingly, Neil still decides to set his present happiness aside for Marina. He sacrifices what he has for what he hopes will be. He tells Marina to come, to exchange rings and vows and build a life with him—even with all the uncertainties that lay before them.
Love is many things. It is emotion, it is commitment, it is companionship, it is sacrifice. But above all, love is … complicated.
The Tree of Life
director Terrence Malick glories in image and emotion. He does not tell stories as much as patch images together to make a quilt-like dreamscape, flooded with portent and meaning but swamping any semblance of a plot. To the Wonder is perhaps as ambiguous and surreal as anything he's done—making it difficult to parse clear-cut positive elements.
For instance, when Neil invites Marina back into his life, it seems he's thinking primarily of her (not his) happiness. As the film's Father Quintana tells us, "The husband is to love his wife like Christ loved the Church and give His life for her." In that context, Neil's commitment to Marina feels, in a way, sacrificial—and a representation of Malick's own definition of love.
The comparison, of course, is far from perfect. We see the heartbreak Neil's decision means for Jane—a woman who placed her heart in Neil hands, only to see him (cruelly?) cast it aside. And suddenly the "rightness" of Neil's decision is hardly obvious.
Father Quintana, too, is a complex figure. We see him minister to the community's (monetarily and spiritually) poor. He offers his flock—and the audience—some powerful messages about what love is really all about. Yet his own relationship with God is hurting. He's discouraged and sad, and he seems to shuffle through his duties without any sense of passion or purpose. In one scene, we see him hiding in his darkened house from someone who desperately wants to talk with him.
So we're left with a bevy of moments and images to pick through, some to cling to. Amid them lingers Malick's central message: Love, and the relationships it bolsters, is difficult—be they with God or with man. We struggle. We make mistakes. We let people down. We let God down. But that doesn't mean love isn't worth the frustration or the fight. Nor does our frustration and fear somehow diminish the beauty of love in the first place.
Malick takes his spirituality seriously. And while To the Wonder is a far murkier film than The Tree of Life, faith within its confines is just as apparent and no less profound. Indeed, in some ways To the Wonder feels like an anguished love letter to God.
Father Quintana is the film's most obviously religious character. Minimizing dialogue, the film's script instead strings together poetic soliloquies—thoughts that only the character and the audience are privy to. Quintana's soliloquies often sound like anguished psalms. For instance:
How long will You hide Yourself?
Let me come to You.
Let me not pretend,
Pretend to feelings I don't have.
He offers several sermons on love and duty. He prays for people, hears their confessions and gives them communion. His parishioners, in turn, pray for him, telling him they hope God gives him "the gift of joy."
As such, it's tempting, and I think encouraged, to draw spiritual references to even moments that aren't overtly spiritual. Marina and Neil's joyous experience at Mont St. Michel tells viewers from the get-go that this film entwines both romantic and spiritual love. When Marina expresses frustration at Neil's being distant, we recall Father Quintana's struggles with his own invisible God. When Marina cheats on Neil, we see parallels to spiritual temptations—idols that draw us away from God (augmented by the disturbing, demonic-looking tattoo the "other guy" has over his heart). When Neil finds out about the affair, we're reminded of how God is a jealous, sometimes angry Lord. And indeed, many of Marina's own soliloquies seem to seesaw between talking about Neil to talking about God to talking about both simultaneously.
In this context, one of the film's most curious scenes (when thought of in the context of only a bittersweet romance) makes far more sense:
Marina spends an afternoon with an Italian friend who encourages her to leave Neil. "Life is a dream," the woman tells Marina. "In a dream you can't make mistakes. In a dream you can be whatever you want. Anything." She goes on to plead with her to "listen to your heart," proudly proclaiming, "I'm my own experiment." It is, in a sense, a temptation in the wilderness moment for Marina—one that she fails. (Not that metaphors and allegories can ever be taken to their fullest extent when it comes to Malick's movies.)
Also: We know quite early that Marina was married before, and that the Catholic church still considers her so—meaning if she marries Neil, she'll have to do so outside her faith. Jane, too, is religious. We're told that when her daughter was killed years ago, Jane's father asked her to read Romans, particularly the part that says "All things work together for good." We see her reading a Bible, and she asks Neil to pray with her. Neil tells us that before meeting Jane, "I had no faith." It's never clear whether he actually finds it, but we do see him attending Father Quintana's church.
"God gave us marriage as a holy mystery, in which a man and woman are joined together and become one," Father Quintana tells his parishioners. "And with affection and tenderness they give themselves to each other."
So while love is the primary focus of To the Wonder, sex becomes an integral part of its expression. Both Neil and Jane, and Neil and Marina, engage in explicitly rendered intercourse. Nudity stops just short of full; motions and sounds are passionate, erotic, titillating and extended—the blending of bodies to suggest complete intimacy. There's the visual suggestion that Neil and Marina have sex in the coach compartment on a train. An (almost) oral sex scene is used to express distance and dissatisfaction.
And forget about Father Quintana's eloquent words about two becoming one within the holy mystery of marriage: Much of this sexual contact is made outside its bonds. Early on, Marina tells Neil, "I don't expect anything, just to go a little of our way together."
Marina often dresses provocatively, with garments that slip off her shoulder or bare her stomach. She wears a bikini, too, and Neil tries to pull off its bottom during some aquatic horseplay. He appears to ogle another woman. Others kiss and grapple and hug and snuggle. We see an X-ray image of an IUD.
Marina hurls furniture and breaks things. Neil smashes a rearview mirror. A woman angrily casts aside a Bible. We hear about children dying.
Crude or Profane Language
None that is obviously audible (or in English).
Drug and Alcohol Content
Marina desperately (spitefully) tries to take a handful of pills. Neil forces her to spit them out.
To the Wonder is said to be Terrence Malick's most personal movie. It was filmed primarily in Bartlesville, Okla., where he grew up, and he reportedly married a Frenchwoman before the two divorced and Malick married his high school sweetheart.
It is also perhaps his most experimental. The actors worked without a screenplay of any sort; filming was done without typical movie set lighting.
And it's been called his most political. When Neil's not dealing with women, he's wading through oil-soaked earth—testing soil, talking with residents affected by the black leaks, dealing with the environmental fallout.
All of that makes this a movie not for everyone. Some will be swept away by the poetry and imagery. Others will find it pretentious, even silly. As reviewer Dustin Putman wrote, "There is only so much twirling in wheat fields a person can handle before it starts to come off as a mockery of itself."
But for those who stick with To the Wonder, To the Wonder will stick with them. And that's both good and bad.
The bad first: Sexuality is the big content concern here—and it readily glues itself to all who venture near.
And then the guardedly good: a profound if ponderous rumination on love and faith. "Love is not only a feeling," Father Quintana says. "It is a duty. You show love. Love is a command." And while emotions "come and go like clouds," love—true love—never does. "You fear that your love has died?" Quintana concludes. "Perhaps it's waiting to be transformed into something higher."
In Malick's mindscape, emotional love takes a beating. Spiritual adoration flags. Relationships break. People walk away discouraged. And yet the final soliloquy—the final psalm, if you will—is full of petitioned hope:
Flood our souls with Your spirit and life
That our loves may truly be a reflection of Yours.
Shine through us.
Show us to see You.
We were made to seek You.
Love that loves us,