Acclaimed director Terrence Malick’s latest film, To the Wonder, screened at the 69th Venice Film Festival and was subsequently greeted with a mixed chorus of both boos and applause. In contrast to the reception of the newly-prolific US auteur’s previous endeavour, 2011’s majestic Palme d’Or-winning tale The Tree of Life – this time around it appears that the booing may well prevail.
Beginning with a romance in France, American in Paris Neil (Ben Affleck) falls for Marina (Olga Kurylenko). She has a child, Tatiana, by a former partner and occasional spells of thoughtful sadness ensue, interspersed with interminable dancing and sun-embracing. Having visited Mont St-Michel, the ‘wonder’ of the title, the new couple-plus child decamp to the US and Neil’s house, an empty shell full of cardboard boxes. Somewhat predictably, the relationship doesn’t go well, and Marina and Tatiana leave, giving Neil time to pursue a romance with old flame, Jane (Rachel McAdams). Whereas Malick’s earlier work is structured around weighty narratives involving killing, war, the discovery of the New World and/or the history of the universe itself, To the Wonder is a flimsy melodrama, featuring the kind of emotional trauma that is boring and grinding even to its participants.
The film’s style means that we never get to know the protagonists in any way that is significant. Characters (such as they are) wander from room to room – or wander around each other – occasionally gazing inappropriately at a cloud or the corner of the skirting board. Kurylenko constantly seems to be ‘expressing herself’ through the medium of dance, like the very worst kind of performance artist. Perhaps the best of the film’s performances is that of Tatiana Chiline as Marina’s child, actually ‘being’ spontaneous rather than struggling to act spontaneously. Malick provides his audience with very little dialogue and what we do have is throwaway in the extreme. One particularly awful moment features an Italian friend of Marina’s, exclaiming in the middle of the street that she is “an experiment of myself”.
We do, of course, have a number of voice-overs – in French, Spanish (Javier Bardem as local Catholic priest, Father Quintana) and English. But whilst this technique was challenging and diverse in Malick’s first three films, in To the Wonder its utilisation has now become gratingly irritating and unintentionally amusing. Of course, as with any of Malick’s offerings, both the music and cinematography are undeniably breathtaking. Yet even this beauty, this wonder, has now transcended into cliché. Malick’s extreme concentration on capturing the magic hour neglects the 23 other hours.
Potentially interesting subplots, such as Affleck’s Neil seems to have some kind of job, Bardem’s Samaritan-like work with the poor, are abandoned for sunsets and sunrises. The ‘sublime’ is supposed to surprise, rather than simply being timetabled. It remains to be seen whether To the Wonder is a misstep, or the sad decline of a once fantastically innovative filmmaker, lost in the limitations of his own inimitable style.
The 69th Venice Film Festival runs from 29 August-8 September. For more of our Venice 2012 coverage, simply follow this link.