To the Wonder is part love story, part prayer. And it’s the most overwhelming movie I’ve seen this year.
It’s as though Terrence Malick, the director, has distilled the humbling grandeur of a cathedral, or the sensation of stepping into one, and refracted it onto a screen. To see the film is to have a numinous, or seemingly religious, experience. It’s one I’d recommend seeing by yourself, and absolutely in a theater. If you miss To the Wonder while it’s screening, don’t even bother.
For the story — which is somewhat obscured, but definitely there — we have a couple who meets, romantically enough, in France. The man is a sturdy, silent American (Ben Affleck), and the woman (Olga Kurylenko) is a lean and acrobatic Parisian with a daughter, age 10.
We first encounter the couple in northern France, at the apex of their relationship. Their love is intoxicating to watch. The rushing camera movements sweep you up into their ethereal, almost angelic, romance as they goof off in train cars and hug in gothic gardens. This joy changes, however, when Affleck’s character asks Kurylenko’s to live with him in the American Middle West.
There, in a suburbia that looks, at times, Minnesotan, the lovers and the girl are happy for spell. But an old flame, played by Rachel McAdams, derails the dream of marriage held by the Frenchwoman and her daughter. The rest of the movie is then spent in recovery, with pieces being picked up, and treasured.
On the periphery of all this love and heartbreak and loneliness is a priest (Javier Bardem) who helps the Frenchwoman deal with her troubles. The love story’s emotional thrashing is then cross-hatched by the priest’s spiritual struggles.
Bardem listens for the voice of God, but doesn’t hear it. He looks for Him, but doesn’t bear witness. Often, his face looks as weary as those on the wounded sufferers he serves.
And what can remedy the existential pain caused by living and loving? Life, the movie suggests. That fleeting beauty.
This is where the prayer comes in. Toward the movie’s second half is a prayer poem. Bardem speaks in Spanish over images (Midwest landscapes, ordinary townspeople, homes, fields of grass and wheat) that inspire a profound, and nearly splendorous, solemnity. I’m not religious, but watching To the Wonder brought me back to a time when I was.
Don’t get me wrong, Malick didn’t re-ignite my faith. Those ashes have already been scattered. He did, however, create a fiction, a puzzlebox that you can’t enter or exit without asking questions.
At the most basic level, these questions seek to establish what’s going on in the story. On another, an interrogative garden opens, offering lines that like: What is Malick trying to say? What does love look like in our modern lives? What should it look like? And should we suffer for it? Should we allow ourselves to fall into it despite the possibility of heartbreak, pain and failure? And after love, what do we have left?
Obviously, your questions will be different than mine. But if you’ve got two hours to entertain some questions — or just bask in glorious, American images — take the time to Wonder.
(Be warned that if you didn’t like Tree of Life, you probably won’t like this. To the Wonder is definitely more of the same: voice-overs and images that look like commercials from heaven. Also: The movie is in multiple languages: English, French and Spanish. A little Italian, too, I think. )
To the Wonder opens Friday, April 12, at the Lagoon Cinema.