I was first introduced to the work of Terrence Malick when I was in university. The film was his second feature sitting in the director’s chair – DAYS OF HEAVEN. It starred the then relatively unknown Richard Gere but I went to see it because it also starred Sam Shepard, whose talent as both a playwright and an actor I greatly admire. An hour and a half later, I was a Terrence Malick fan. He not only tells a story with incredible poetry, he also knows how to get his actors to convey a world of emotions with just a simple glance. And he knows how to pick his cinematographers. Nestor Almendros went on to win an Oscar® for his work filming the beauty and wonder of Alberta, Canada (standing in for the Texas panhandle). The film remains one of my all-time favourites.
Over the next 34 years, Malick directed just four films, the most recent being TO THE WONDER, starring Ben Affect, Olga Kurylenko and Javier Bardem. Like Malick’s other films, this one is light on talk and heavy on visuals.
An American environmentalist (maybe, we’re not sure) meets a Frenchwoman in Paris and they fall in love. He asks her and her daughter to return with him to Oklahoma but, while life in their new home starts out well, problems ultimately arise and the women return to France. Meanwhile, a Spanish priest in the same Oklahoma town has a crisis of faith. The American man renews a relationship with his childhood sweetheart who is recently divorced but that ends abruptly when the Frenchwoman returns.
Although I want to remain a Terrence Malick fan, the director makes it very difficult with this piece of tediously ethereal garbage. If spending 112 minutes watching the back of Ben Affleck’s head is your idea of a good time, then this film is for you. You can count in the single digits how many seconds his face is seen full on during the film. Olga, for her part, does a great job twirling and prancing around – in their backyard, at the supermarket, on the beach at Mont Saint-Michel (which was once known in France as the Wonder) – but, really, her character whose name we only know from the end credits is in serious need of a dose of Focusyn. She did give up custody of her daughter to her husband (or ex-husband, maybe, we’re not sure) so perhaps there were some psychological issues that were never explored. That’s the thing with Malick’s films. So much is never explored. Everything is in the moment.
The dialogue, which is really just a series of monologues or shared thoughts, wafts in the air for a brief moment before dissipating. Half the time you can barely hear what anyone is saying. Between the combination of Olga speaking in French and the film’s spacious shots of Paris, Normandy, and later, Oklahoma, you could be excused for thinking you’re watching one very long, boring TV commercial for something like Chanel No. 5. In fact, if think of that awful spot Brad Pitt did last year for the product and extend it to almost two hours, you have this film.
It has been suggested that TO THE WONDER is autobiographical. Malick apparently had a romance with Michele Morette in France in the 1980s. They married in 1985 and they moved to Texas together. After their marriage ended just three years later, he reconnected with and married Alexandra Wallace, whom he dated when they were both students in Texas. Is this movie about the loss of love and faith then? If Malick sees himself as Ben’s character (whose name, Neil, we also only find out from the end credits), then he’s quite the brooder.
As with most of Malick’s films, there was no formal script. Malick would describe the characters and the actors would improvise. That much is quite evident. At least a half a dozen actors, including Rachel Weisz, Jessica Chastain, Michael Sheen, Amanda Peet, Barry Pepper and Michael Shannon had scenes in the film which ended up on the cutting room floor. They are the lucky ones.
Unless you’re a masochist, give this film a huge miss. It’s deadly boring. Better yet, get a copy of DAYS OF HEAVEN and watch that.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 44:45.)
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Here is an interesting interview with Sam Shepard about working with Terrence Malick on DAYS OF HEAVEN.