Ben Affleck in Terrence Malick's To The Wonder at the Toronto Film Festival
Village Voice Media film critic Karina Longworth is soaking up the silver screen at the Toronto International Film Festival this week. Come back to Jackalope Ranch every day for dispatches from TIFF.
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As the summer of self-plagiarism comes to a close, add Terrence Malick to the list of those accused of this debatable crime: The auteur's quick follow-up to last year's The Tree of Life, To The Wonder, is a romance set in present-day Paris and rural America starring Ben Affleck as an American man who has relationships with a French single mother (Olga Kurylenko) and a local rancher (Rachel McAdams). The film literally and figuratively recycles material from that Cannes-winning, dinosaur-conjuring Best Picture nominee.
Malick cops to using actual footage from Life in the new film's credits, but I think the critics who allegedly booed Wonder in Venice last week, and/or the many members of the press who walked out of the Toronto screening I attended before the movie ended, were probably more aggrieved by Malick's unofficial self-appropriation.
To The Wonder is a film in which characters question their commitments to long-held beliefs in light of the lack of visible evidence of a higher power in the extremely secular world. And so it goes that the latter film repeats the earlier one's fondness for camerawork that mimics the view from a neck craned to the heavens, and frequent, spacey-deep voiceover rumination on what it feels like to feel feelings.
There's no question that these aesthetic traits tie Wonder back to The Tree of Life, and to some extent, every other Malick movie. But To The Wonder is also Malick's first feature to take place entirely in the present day, and what's fascinating about it are the ways in which Malick is able to circle his usual textual and visual themes and revitalize them in ah unmistakably contemporary context.
The film begins with a montage of brightly saturated, high-contrast cellphone videos documenting the early days of a relationship between Marina (Kurylenko) and the American man played by Affleck (the credits say his name is "Neil" but I don't recall that ever being said aloud). He convinces Marina and her 10 year-old daughter Tatiana to move in with him in Oklahoma, and at first, all is bliss, with Tatiana dreamily marveling at the cleanliness of an American supermarket, and all but insisting that her mom's boyfriend pop the question. Voiceover duties are shared between Marina and a priest played by Javier Bardem; she handles questions of faith in love and lust, while he takes care of the spiritual part of the equation. Though the priest is a peripheral presence in their lives, as he becomes increasingly disillusioned with his life's chosen line, so the clarity and purpose seems to fade from Marina and Neil's once all-consuming relationship.