“Other people direct movies. Terrence Malick builds cathedrals”
These words, from Matt Zoller Seitz, occur to me every time I watch a Terrence Malick film. They inevitably contain several moments that are transcendent to a degree that can only be described as religious, so removed from what conventions have taught us to approach as cinema that the moniker of “movie” seems somehow to diminish them. Where the majority of movies are inherently theatrical, Malick consistently rises above such constraints. He writes symphonies, directs ballets; he paints with light. Malick may not be my favorite director, but, in a person, he represents cinema’s innate potential to be the apotheosis of all art.
Despite what audiences at Toronto and Venice may have led you to believe, To the Wonder possesses several such moments. I watched it once before going to bed last night and again upon awaking this morning. There are surely many moments that eluded me, but among those that are still circling in my mind: Ben Affleck approaching Olga Kurylenko across ground that gives way like a trampoline as the tide rolls in around Mont St. Michel, a man’s hand grasping for a woman’s in a manner that recalls Michelangelo, a jet carving the path of a parabola around the sun, the woman peering through a hole in a fence as the sun shines through, a man’s hand running down a woman’s unclothed back, the woman dancing through the aisles of a fluorescent supermarket.
I could go on and on. It’s worth noting that the majority of these moments center on the performance of Olga Kurylenko. Prior to watching To the Wonder, I only knew she had been a Bond girl in a film I hadn’t watched. Now I know her every emotion, every curve of her face, as intimately as I would that of a lover’s. While Affleck is clearly Malick’s surrogate, often positioned at the edge of the frame with the camera looking over his shoulder, Kurylenko is undoubtedly the film’s heart. She commands every shot she is in, pirouetting with the grace of a ballerina, the ballerina she aspired to be. The camera soaks in every inch of her beauty.
The beauty is not there solely because Kurylenko is a beautiful woman, but because Malick knows where to find it. He shows it to us in the unlikeliest of places: a Sonic parking lot, a Laundromat, in water draining into a sewer grate. The potential to transcend is everywhere, but we are often too caught up in ourselves, and the lives of those around us, to reach out and touch it, to approach the wonder that surrounds us. The Christian prayer intoned by Bardem that serves as the film’s climax embodies this idea.
I come back to the idea that Terrence Malick builds cathedrals. It occurs to me that Rothko Chapel is in Texas. I picture Malick walking in and being transported, classical music playing in his head as his internal monologue conducts itself in something analogous to hushed voiceover. The Chapel’s Wikipedia page features a quote describing it as “a holy place open to all religions and belonging to none.” Is there any better evocation of the feeling one gets from Malick’s films? As someone who identifies as an agnostic one day and an atheist the next, his films are emblematic of the metaphysical truth I search for in art.
I could go on about the imperfections I found in the film such as Bardem’s performance and character feeling a bit out of place until the climactic sequence. I could talk about how beguiling I found the shot of a sea turtle. I could extemporize upon the ways in which To the Wonder and The Tree of Life see a famously reclusive director branching out into autobiography. There may be time for that in the future, but for now these things would only serve to impose themselves between Malick and your soul. At worst, they would dissuade you from seeing the film. Whatever you ultimately make of To the Wonder, it’s an artistic expression so wholly unique it deserves to be approached on its own terms.