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Ray Pride

By Ray Pride

TIFF12 Review: To The Wonder

“I’d like to have him here to introduce the film,” TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey said before the second public showing of To The Wonder, at the 1,700-or-so-seat Princess of Wales Theater, “but that’s not going to happen.” (A knowing ripple of laughter from the packed-to-the-second-balcony audience.) Setting the stakes high, Bailey also said of the reticent filmmaker, “There is no one greater working in cinema now.”

To the Wonder is immediately and consistently recognizable as a Terrence Malick film. Its romance, between a cold man and two beautiful women, is conveyed through more implication and indirection than any movie in his career. It’s 116 minutes of epic languor. Once again, Malick works with multiple narrators. One of the more memorable scraps of mutter is the phrase “an avalanche of tenderness.” More common are phrases that recall The Tree Of Life‘s approximations of raptures, such as “I in you, you in me.”  To The Wonder is a further distillation of Malick’s mission to convey emotion through sensation and repetition of gesture, and thoughts privileged aloud as ululations of desire. (Coincidentally, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers makes similar experiments.) Hushed and murmurous, To The Wonder, while reportedly steeped in autobiographical resonance for the suddenly prolific filmmaker, may, for many viewers, be only a succession of bits of B-roll impressionism. (End credit is given for images that are outtakes from The Tree of Life.)  The presence of Joerg Widmer’s Steadicam is pronounced: throughout, the camera not so much glides as it slides and puppy-dogs behind and beside the action, as elusive as the characters’ flashes of hummingbird-sudden emotion.

After a swoony rush through France, spooning at each other and for a video camera, usually standing at right angles to each other for the image to swirl around them while laughing or scuffling and even walking on melty ice, Neil (Ben Affleck) takes his inamorata, Marina (Olga Kurylenko), from Paris to Oklahoma, along with her 10-year-old daughter, and later, during a split, runs into Jane (Rachel McAdams), a woman he knew from childhood. Neil is a kind of mud doctor, checking out the earth underneath, as well as surface water and excavations, measuring disturbances that construction and drilling have made in crust and muck and aquifer. He can calculate how man has poisoned the Earth but not how he poisons his loves. Malick uses Affleck’s strong face as smooth crag rather than for performance; he has few lines, none memorable. Marina, on the other hand, is continually dancing and jumping, and there are hints of her aptitude with instruments and music and likely problems with depression. Javier Bardem is in the margins as Father Quintana, a gloomy priest who ministers to the poor, broken, malformed and otherwise stricken, hands brushing their faces. He offers advice like “A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church,” but that note doesn’t seem much help to Neil.

The expectedly gorgeous photography is in unfiltered natural light, flattering these three faces, especially McAdams. Eyes. Skin. Flickers of repose. The film’s most tender moment, even aside from caresses in chaste nudity that are new to Malick, is between Neil and Jane. In a too-brief passage, Jane, who appears to be a horse rancher, finds herself and Neil brushing against each other in a large field against empty horizon right up next to a herd of brown bison amid rustling grasses, as if grass were ever still when a camera is directed its way.

The wind buffets Jane’s loose hair, she and Neil kiss, and a single, ready tear trembles on her cheek, matching a pearl earring to the side of her face, the side of the frame. “I love you,” she whispers and all is good, before Malick is quickly back to God, wind, sun, murmuring. The longest bit of dialogue is in Italian, from a visiting female friend of Marina’s, but Jane’s explanation of why her husband’s gone, wryly tossed aside—”Student loans, gambling debts and this ranch that’s falling apart”—is the closest Malick’s words come to the likes of “She was a good frien’ of mine. I hoped she would meet a charactah,” as at the end of Days of Heaven. (That Malick was so long ago.) In its own way, this is a silent film, but with detailed sound design, heavy on agitated birds, and a never-ending musical undercurrent, with only a few dozen words spoken by characters while on camera.

To The Wonder is also very damp, filled with free association of wet, glinting imagery, akin to the sleek streets of Michael Mann’s movies, but omitting the streets and going straight to the source of life, l’eau de vie. To The Wonder can be read as about pity and the hope of forgiveness, but its heaviest impression is of rain, rains, raining, streams and rainingness.

The Oklahoma suburbs, and the impoverished side of Malick’s hometown of Bartlesville draws an Eggleston-like gaze. Malick and Emanuel Lubezki are eager to describe oddities, drawn to cracked things, weathered houses, faces that are even more weathered, as if a corrective from the way the camera gazes upon Adams and Kurylenko, their faces and their bodies: they are ennobled. But beauty of one kind or another is everywhere: A half moon loiters above contrails above high-tension electrical transmission towers that align with rows of houses. Another contrail of luminescent white is like a gash off the blue enamel of the sky. Marina’s daughter exclaims in French in a supermarket, “It’s super-clean, everything is beautiful here,” continuing, “C’est incroyable!”

Is it incredible? I don’t know, not now, not yet. What is this gentle, obsessive, seemingly broken creature in front of us? It will take an army of Frenchmen, at least one inspired clergyman and Matt Zoller Seitz even to even begin to come to terms with this latest turn in Terrence Malick’s spiritual striving.

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“Roger Ebert claimed that the re-editing of The Brown Bunny after Cannes allowed him a difference of opinion so vast that he first called it the worst film in history and eventually gave it a thumbs up. This is both far fetched and an outright lie. The truth is, unlike the many claims that the unfinished film that showed at Cannes was 24 minutes shorter than the finished film, it was only 8 minutes shorter. The running time I filled out on the Cannes submission form was arbitrary. The running time I chose was just a number I liked. I had no idea where in the process I would actually be when I needed to stop cutting to meet the screening deadline. So whatever running time was printed in the program, I promise you, was not the actual running time. And the cuts I made to finish the film after Cannes were not many. I shortened the opening race scene once I was able to do so digitally. After rewatching the last 4 minutes of the film over and over again, somewhere within those 4 minutes, I froze the picture and just ended the film there, cutting out everything after that point, which was about 3 minutes. Originally in the salt flats scene, the motorcycle returned from the white. I removed the return portion of that shot, which seemed too literal. And I cut a scene of me putting on a sweater. That’s pretty much it. Plus the usual frame here, frame there, final tweaks. If you didn’t like the unfinished film at Cannes, you didn’t like the finished film, and vice versa. Roger Ebert made up his story and his premise because after calling my film literally the worst film ever made, he eventually realized it was not in his best interest to be stuck with that mantra. Stuck with a brutal, dismissive review of a film that other, more serious critics eventually felt differently about. He also took attention away from what he actually did at the press screening. It is outrageous that a single critic disrupted a press screening for a film chosen in main competition at such a high profile festival and even more outrageous that Ebert was ever allowed into another screening at Cannes. His ranting, moaning and eventual loud singing happened within the first 20 minutes, completely disrupting and manipulating the press screening of my film. Afterwards, at the first public screening, booing, laughing and hissing started during the open credits, even before the first scene of the film. The public, who had heard and read rumors about the Ebert incident and about me personally, heckled from frame one and never stopped. To make things weirder, I got a record-setting standing ovation from the supporters of the film who were trying to show up the distractors who had been disrupting the film. It was not the cut nor the film itself that drew blood. It was something suspicious about me. Something offensive to certain ideologues.”
~ Vincent Gallo

“I think [technology has[ its made my life faster, it’s made the ability to succeed easier. But has that made my life better? Is it better now than it was in the eighties or seventies? I don’t think we are happier. Maybe because I’m 55, I really am asking these questions… I really want to do meaningful things! This is also the time that I really want to focus on directing. I think that I will act less and less. I’ve been doing it for 52 years. It’s a long time to do one thing and I feel like there are a lot of stories that I got out of my system that I don’t need to tell anymore. I don’t need to ever do The Accused again! That is never going to happen again! You hit these milestones as an actor, and then you say, ‘Now what? Now what do I have to say?'”
~ Jodie Foster