To the Wonder will finally, finally unveil itself at the Venice Film Festival on Sunday, and reviews from scenic Italy would, normally, be the most substantial reports on the film so far. A few days out from its first screening, after all, the closest thing to an update involves those who didn’t make it past Terrence Malick’s editing scissors.
Update: The first reviews have arrived from Venice, check them out here and read on for more details below.
Before that, we’ve got something which, if you’ll excuse the overwhelming bravado, peels back far more layers than anything else up to this point, possibly more than anything short of seeing the actual film. “That’s not saying much,” one could argue, and they’d be right — again, you only know Rachel Weisz probably won’t attend the premiere — so how about a full synopsis, eye-opening comments from Ben Affleck, and a St. Vincent song? And what if there was still more?
I think I have your attention. But you probably want the rundown first, so let’s get right to it:
TO THE WONDER, written and directed by Terrence Malick, is a romantic drama centered on Neil, a man who is torn between two loves: Marina, the European woman who came to United States to be with him, and Jane, the old flame he reconnects with from his hometown. In TO THE WONDER, Malick explores how love and its many phases and seasons – passion, sympathy, obligation, sorrow, indecision – can transform, destroy, and reinvent lives.
As TO THE WONDER opens, Neil and Marina are together on the French island of Mont St. Michel – known in France as The Wonder of the Western World (Merveille de l’Occident) – and invigorated by feelings of being newly in love. Neil, an aspiring writer, has left the United States in search of a better life, leaving behind a string of unhappy affairs. Looking into Marina’s eyes as the Abbey looms in the distance, Neil is certain he has finally found the one woman he can love with commitment. He makes a vow to be true to this woman alone.
Marina, quiet and beautiful, with flashes of a mischievous humor, is divorced and the mother of a 10-year-old daughter, Tatiana. At 16, Marina left the Ukraine for Paris without a cent to her name. There, she married a Frenchman who abandoned her after just two years, leaving her alone with Tatiana in a studio apartment. Marina was forced to work a variety of temporary jobs to make her way. Having nearly given up hope, Marina is overcome with joy to be in love with Neil, her salvation from an unhappy future.
Two years later, Neil and Marina are living in a small town in Oklahoma, close to where Neil grew up. Neil, having given up his hopes of becoming a writer, has taken a job as an environmental inspector. Neil is happy with his work, but his love for Marina cools as she, for her part, is frustrated by the holding pattern she feels she is in with Neil. She fears her youth – and happiness – are slipping away. In spite of her anxieties about Neil, Marina initially feels at home in Oklahoma, embraced by the open space and sky, and soothed by the sounds that come from the wind harp that animates breezes into songs.
Seeking advice, Marina turns to another exile in the community, a Catholic priest named Quintana. We learn that Father Quintana has come to grapple with his own dilemmas, as he harbors doubts about his vocation. He no longer feels the ardor he knew in the first days of his faith, and wonders if he ever will again.
Professional life throws Neil into conflict as well, when he discovers that a smelting operation in town is polluting the soil and water and threatening the health of future generations. His concerns fail to persuade his neighbors, who depend on the smelter for their livelihoods. Under pressure to keep quiet, Neil must once again weigh the consequences of his actions.
Neil’s doubts about Marina intensify. This, coupled with the fact that Marina’s visa is soon to expire, leads her to return to France with her daughter. In her absence, Neil reconnects with Jane, an old friend. As the two of them fall deeply in love, Neil finds this new relationship far less complicated. Yet when word comes to him that Marina has fallen on hard times and her daughter has gone to live with her father and refuses to have anything more to do with her, he finds himself gripped by a sense of responsibility for her wellbeing, and arranges for her return to the United States.
Neil’s entanglements with the two women in his life, and Father Quintana’s struggle with his faith, force them both to consider different kinds of love. Should the commitment they each made be undertaken as a duty, sometimes full of effort? Or should we accept that love often changes, and doesn’t always last? Can sorrow bind lovers more tightly than joy?
There’s an urge to say it almost sounds like a traditional narrative, with its story of conflicted love and the character relationships to match; you’d be way getting ahead of yourself, though. It’s enough that Ben Affleck revealed To the Wonder “makes Tree of Life look like Transformers,” yet his comments in the press release make a much bigger impression.
Here they are:
“The film feels to me like more a memory of a life than a literal story in real time of someone’s life, the way movies more commonly are. This pastiche of impressionistic moments, skipping across the character’s life and moving in a nonlinear way, mirror, in my mind, the way one remembers one’s life. It’s a little hypnotic and you’re a little bit in a daze — it’s more fluid than real life is.”
(This is, I think, reinforced by the promise of “something more than a story; a journey that conveys the emotional and spiritual depth of its characters as they change and grow.”)
Doesn’t sound too much like a Nicholas Sparks adaptation now. In fact, the way in which Malick (reportedly) uses temporal frameworks and a “pastiche of impressionistic moments” will, for many, bring The Tree of Life to mind — and, for reasons which are bigger than you’d even realize. Far be it from us to guess as to what significance this might eventually have, but, buried at the bottom of Wonder’s press notes is a copyright that tells us Malick’s latest will actually include footage from The Tree of Life. Off the top of my head, I can only figure this would be the cosmic material and not, for instance, anything involving the narrative — maybe since Jessica Chastain is essentially confirmed to be out of the picture, given her excision from the official cast list — but who knows.
Informative as he’s already proven, however, Ben Affleck might not even really “be” in To the Wonder. Though unconfirmed, Jeff Wells heard the actor’s work here is not unlike that of Adrien Brody in The Thin Red Line or Sean Penn in The Tree of Life — i.e., he has a couple of scenes and just about as many lines of dialogue. It’s a revelation which feels all the more confounding when Affleck himself describes Neil as its “silent center,” a character type which he based on Gary Cooper.
One thing which will be present throughout is Bartlesville, Oklahoma, which served as Wonder’s primary shooting location. Producer Nick Gonda explained its cinematic presence as “a character in the story” that, thanks to the town’s kind denizens, allowed Malick to “interact with his surroundings much like he works with actors, letting its inherent qualities emerge,” a way he’s “dreamt of working for many, many years.” (His longtime production designer, Jack Fisk, who cited the director’s affinity for creating images which communicate ideas, believes Malick “found something important in the starkness of those homes.”)
Some additional production was done in what’s only described as “the American West,” whose “open spaces and natural beauty […] act as a reminder of the rhythms and cycles amid which our human struggles and aspirations may appear only as mere details on a vast canvas.” To the Wonder’s location manager, John Patterson, commented that its color palette — one comprised of “browns and yellows and beautiful sky and the clear open spaces” — is, much like the geographic space, a natural fit for the story and emotions which run throughout; it’s also the backdrop for the one still released up until now.
We’re also told that Wonder’s starting point, the beaches of France, serve as both an “Old World” contrast to Bartlesville and, what’s more, a possible explanation the film’s title; this tidal island of Mont St. Michel is known as the “merveille,” which, when translated to English, means “wonder.” Thematic interpretations based upon that are total stabs in the dark, but notes say the “dramatic cloisters that rise up to the sky suggest a place somewhere between heaven and earth, reality and fantasy — an apt place to begin Marina and Neil’s story.” Make of that whatever you will.
Finally, we have the music. Terrence Malick is actually changing a few gears with To the Wonder, having compiled a massive collection of classical songs that are even accompanied by contemporary selections. Seeing as this is, from what we understand — not that it means much, as should be clear — his first picture set entirely in the modern day, there’s an aural transposition reflected by the inclusion of the aforementioned St. Vincent and Thee Oh Sees. (It’s worth pointing out that Annie Clark, who performs under the former name, once remarked that her second album, Actor, was inspired by Badlands. Funny how that worked out.) On the classical side, we can expect a couple of pieces which appeared in The Thin Red Line, in addition to one recognizable track from There Will Be Blood.
For you, we’ve done two things: One is provide whatever music (or interpretations of specific songs) was available online, while the second is provide a complete tracklist containing every other song contained in To the Wonder — including one from actress Olga Kurylenko herself, along with classic children’s tunes redone by the local Bartlesville high school band. This assemblage can be ingested with a peek below and the rest on the following page:
Written by Annie Clark
Performed by St. Vincent
Written and Performed by Thee Oh Sees
“Fratres for Eight Cellos”
Composed by Arvo Part
Performed by Hungarian State Opera Orchestra
Conducted by Tamas Benedek
“Harold in Italy, Op. 16, II.”
Composed by Hector Berlioz
Performed by The San Diego Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Yoav Talmi
“Parsifal: Prelude to Act One”
Composed by Richard Wagner
Performed by Hanan Townshend
“Parsifal: Prelude to Act One”
Composed by Richard Wagner
Performed by The Mariinsky Orchestra
Conducted by Valery Gergiev
“Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons), H0B.XXI;3″
Composed by Franz Joseph Haydn
Performed by Mozarteum Orchestra
Conducted by Ivor Bolton
“Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite No. 2, P.138”
Composed by Ottorino Respighi
Performed by Ireland National Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Rico Saccani
“June (Barcarolle)” Performed by Morton Gould at The Piano
Arranged and Conducted by Morton Gould
Composed by Piotr Ilich Tchaikovsky
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