The throughline of To the Wonder is quite simple, as many romantic movies are. An American man in France falls in love with a French woman. He invites her and her daughter back to America. It doesn’t work out, and the woman and her daughter leave. The man strikes up a relationship with another woman he once knew years ago. That doesn’t work out, either. Then the man invites the French woman back to America. They get married. This doesn’t make things much easier. Meanwhile, a priest is having trouble with his faith. He and the man wander around a bit, comforting the sick and elderly. The end, I think.
That sort of synopsis doesn’t nearly grapple with To the Wonder, but then no synopsis could pin Terrence Malick to the ground. This is Malick’s sixth film in a 40-year career; he has been working at a positively blistering clip lately, relative to his output, because his previous film, The Tree of Life, only came out two years ago, and he’s working on another. Malick, who once taught philosophy and translated Heidegger, is perhaps the lone acolyte of the American sublime; he is preoccupied with the ineffable, the primordial, the ecstatic. To this end, he makes hushed and meditative films with painfully beautiful photography and lots of solemn, whispered voice-overs. Not a Team Malick member myself, I thought that Tree of Life was gaseous yet movingly inchoate, the work of a true seeker, and that it probably represented the purest expression of what he’s getting at.
And what is he getting at? In To the Wonder, the man (Ben Affleck) and the French woman (Olga Kurylenko) seem to represent The Man and The Woman. There are no people in a Terrence Malick film; instead there are abstracted avatars standing in for ideas. In Tree of Life, Brad Pitt was Nature — red in tooth and claw — and Jessica Chastain was Grace, spinning about free-spiritedly. And we see the same dynamic here. Men, weighted to the earth, must contend with its despoliation (Affleck’s character literally measures how much we’re poisoning the soil). Women, if this film and its predecessor are to be believed, fling their arms to the heavens at every opportunity and dance among the fireflies, the buffalo, the waves at the beach. If Tree of Life was about the son who felt pulled between the forces of Nature and Grace, To the Wonder is a kind of prequel-in-spirit in which we see how uneasily Nature and Grace live together.
So you see, it’s not really a romantic movie after all. Well, not lowly human romance, anyway. The priest (Javier Bardem) is there for a very significant thematic reason: to remind us how far we’ve fallen from the Grace of God. (This movie and Tree of Life feel intensely spiritual but don’t seem to show specific allegiance to any creed. God here is, as AA puts it, “as we understand him.” Or her. With Malick, we can’t be sure.) A little has been made of the way some of the plot seems to mirror Malick’s own romantic past, but I’d say he’s just writing what he knows as an on-ramp onto the highway of higher mysteries. Nature and Grace are mutually infatuated but can never reconcile; their aims are too different. Affleck, who sees daily what his species has done to the planet, cannot love. Kurylenko seeks companionship but cannot, will not, be tied down.
Your response to all this depends extremely heavily on how much philosophizing and pretty pictures you’re willing to accept in lieu of a story. I seem to have grown tired in recent years of the stuff Hollywood expects me to accept as stories, and so I have moved a little closer to the Malick camp, without quite being sold on the Master a hundred percent. Tree of Life and To the Wonder both fall into the “interesting, yet boring” category, ravishing but at an aesthetic remove dramatically. For instance, we see Affleck and Kurylenko arguing but never hear what they’re fighting about; we see the end of Affleck’s relationship with the second woman (Rachel McAdams) but have no idea why or how it ended. (In voice-over, McAdams whispers dejectedly that Affleck “made it into nothing” with his “lust.” Okay.) Again, I think we’re supposed to take these love affairs as Love Affairs, which in turn signify not mere matters of the heart but the titans of creation and destruction at war within all of us. Or something.
Also, I could be wrong but I believe this is the first Terrence Malick film that’s ever seen the inside of a supermarket. He finds beauty and ecstasy even there. But we don’t find out what groceries the characters buy or why they eat them, and I think that’s a useful thing to keep in mind when approaching this or any Malick film. They’re just in the supermarket.