To the Wonderby Kavish Chetty / 20.06.2013
All the wonders of Malick’s new film belong to a presence of the aesthetic. Rarely is cinema which gravitates around such boring materials – relationships and their unhappily ever aftermath; the exilic ennui of young immigrant mothers in America – so beautiful. Malick has apotheosised the grand dread of the medium in this film of empty beauty. For his subject, he has chosen something which rarely escapes the attentions of even the most mediocre couple: just people, hanging around, falling into the rhythms of ordinary romance (make-out, break-up, make-up with intensity; repeat until the narcotic quality of the make-up runs dry, the vertiginous sense of losing someone relinquishes its attraction). Nothing wondrous occurs throughout the film’s languid two hours. Malick simply exploits the beautiful pairing of his principal players – Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko – who are totally depersonalised and made to represent a cast of themes instead: love is ephemeral, chaotic, volatile; you know, existentialism and stuff.
It’s a plot-forsaken film, experiential, dream-like and non-linear. But there is something almost spiritual about the way Malick transmutes ordinary scenes of romantic entanglement into the rapturous. It’s a cinematographic, but not quite emotional triumph, as there are at least two polar experiences of what he does. The camera is always in motion, as though agitated, drifting nervously toward characters and then retreating from them, while they move in a near-wordless performance of gestures. They are caught in a silent intimacy, as though no one was watching, and the absence of any pressure to enact narrative, allows his actors to capture a kind of crucial ambiguity, an uncertainty which links together expressively through subtle movements, like raised eyebrows, dimmed eyelids, eyes and mouth. The music surges orchestrally, and then burns to embers of quiet string.
There is an erotic dimension to Kurylenko’s face glimpsed in orgasmic sigh, its contours pressed eerily up against cream curtains. There is an emancipatory sense of belonging to a series of singular moments, when she is caught gamboling amid stalks of wheat in the Oklahoma twilight. What this film does is give each shot over to itself and no other directive. In these rapturous moments, twelve or fourteen seconds long, the movie wants only to stealthily glance at what romance might feel like at its apexes and nadirs of intensity. It exiles everything else and produces a bold, impressionistic account of feeling.
But after forty minutes (or whenever your patience runs dry) it froths over into a narcissism and pretentiousness that is almost unbearable. Its romance suddenly has the feel of being pre-colonised by perfume commercials, in which gorgeous and vacuous playthings whisper and then offer you some product, or rather the promise that enough cream-soda coloured ten rand notes can purchase symbolic access to these visuals. Seriously, who wants to see Kurylenko laughably twirling, pirouetting endlessly in about twenty scenes? Or indulgent lovers play-chasing themselves in their beautiful house? Or, for that matter, hear Kurylenko’s contra-poetic narration, in which such dire things can be heard as “We are one, two, one” or “I in you, you in me”, or that question that I’m sure we’ve all been so pompous as to ask ourselves on the appropriate occasion: “what is this love which loves us?” And so Malick’s moments – which work as a recognition that there is something deeply filmable and expressible in the silences and seeming nothingnesses around the more predictable workings of romance – slowly ashes into a series of artistic mini-commercials, beckoning to a wonder that only exists through the aestheticisation of banality, without any corresponding desire to cohere, to make sense, to tell.
The film, then, it feels, could be better served at a fraction of its length, still offering its luxuries of image and sense, whilst not frankly boring the fuck out of you with its vexed, posture of artistry. Malick has done something incredible with film, resisting the usual closed-up, ordered ambitions, and producing images which are beautiful and sensuous. But, lacking substance and slowly coming to be almost farcical in its self-indulgence and may I even say naiveté, To the Wonder becomes both sensuous and senseless.