Venice 2012: To The Wonder
Posted on Monday September 3, 2012, 13:54 by Damon Wise in Under The Radar
Terrence Malick's To The Wonder was, after The Master, perhaps the hottest ticket on the Lido this year, but the scenes outside the cinema at yesterday morning's press screening were nothing like the carnage that occurred before the equivalent screening of Tree Of Life last year in Cannes. Perhaps it's because attendances are down this year, maybe it's because Ben Affleck is no Brad Pitt, or it could just be that Tree Of Life was so long in the making that it became almost mythical. Any which way, it just didn't seem that there was the same level of interest in Malick's relatively rapid follow-up.
Which was perhaps just as well, since To The Wonder is a very disappointing film that borders on self-parody with its tics and flourishes. I wasn't wild about Tree Of Life, but I did feel that – outside of the dreadful Sean Penn scenes – it had a visual lyricism and a strong narrative angle, in that it was a film seen in hindsight, from a child's perspective, which gave Malick licence to withhold certain details and only sketch in others. Here, the camera is objective, and Malick withholds so much information that it becomes hard to care. Luckily it's not as long as Tree Of Life, but its nearly two-hour running time is a long slog, and it's very, very hard stay engaged with the people it depicts.
Before it began, rumours abounded that Rachel Weisz had been cut from the film (true), and when Javier Bardem was bumped off the press schedules it seemed he might have been too (false). But even the advance image for this film – Affleck in a cornfield with Rachel McAdams – is misleading, since she's hardly in it, and the film is effectively a love letter to former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko. She plays Marina, who we meet in the opening footage, horribly shot on touristy video aboard what looks like the Eurostar, as she and her new boyfriend Neil (Affleck) go on holiday together to Mont Saint-Michel in France. Marina has a young daughter, and Neil invites the pair to move back to America with him, which they do.
It's hard to say what happens next without spoilers, since the film is entirely free of subplots. All that really happens is that Marina moves to the US, has a crisis of conscience and moves back to Paris. (Luckily, there is a bit more to it than that.) But whatever goes wrong with Marina's relationship, Malick never tells us. Neil, who seems to be some kind of environmental officer, is moody and aggressive, and all we get are snatches of wispy, almost Monty Python-esque arthouse dialogue from Marina. Literally, the first word is “Newborn”, and I'm not paraphrasing too much when I say that Christmas cracker mottoes like “how does love love” pile up in their dozens.
Into the midst of this comes Bardem as a priest, who mumbles in voiceover about his quest to connect with God. He's not entirely miscast, but there was spontaneous laughter at the first shot of him in his robes. Affleck, however, is toe-curlingly miscast, and where Kurylenko is (perhaps to the point of irritation) free and expressive with the clearly improvisatory nature of the shoot, Affleck is like a lump of wood. Obviously this is all beautifully shot, and there are some dazzling scenes amid the dense, cryptic verbiage, but most of it looks too uncomfortably like Tree Of Life 2 for this to be any kind of recompense. Hardcore fans of Malick will defend it, but To The Wonder will die a death at the box office, and, sadly, it will be a fate that this wilfully impenetrable film brings on itself.