This post was first published on Culturewatch as part of the Film & Bible Blog. © Tony Watkins 2013.
For discussion material on this film, see my Damaris Film Blog discussion guide and the supplementary questions in the published version of this article in the Film & Bible Blog.
Warning: This article contains plot spoilers.
To the Wonder is a beautiful, and sometimes bewildering, film by master film-maker Terrence Malick. His previous film, The Tree of Life (2011), was only his fifth feature film in almost four decades, so it was surprising that this one followed only a year later. There is a subtle sense that To the Wonder is a companion piece: The Tree of Life was a haunting meditation on suffering; this one is a meditation on love. There is certainly a strong stylistic connection, in that To the Wonder is a further development of Malick’s impressionistic approach to narrative. The story is not the primary concern here, but rather the perceptions of meaning within particular moments in the lives of his characters. The sense of To the Wonder and The Tree of Life being linked is reinforced by the director’s choice to re-use some of the music from the earlier film. What really binds the two together is that both contain autobiographical elements. Malick reportedly says that this is his most personal film: it is set in the town in which he grew up, and there are strong echoes of his own experiences in what happens to Ben Affleck’s character.1
Malick creates poems in film, rather than telling stories through film. With cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki – who also collaborated on Malick’s previous two films (The Tree of Life and 2005’s The New World) – To the Wonder is visually stunning. Malick has an abiding fondness – going right back to Badlands (1973) – for filming at the ‘magic hour’ around sunset when the lighting is golden and subtle. But he and Lubezki find beauty everywhere: the contrail of a jet curving across a cloudless azure sky, dazzling sunlight streaming through a hole in a fence; the glinting surface of a drainage channel, even the rusting components of a nodding donkey on an oil well, and monochrome industrial waste ground. While shopping in an American supermarket, 10-year-old French girl Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) exclaims, ‘Everything is beautiful here!’
Not only is it a beautifully photographed film, it also has an exquisite soundtrack, primarily composed by Hanan Townshend. Music has always mattered enormously to Malick, and he again includes pieces of classical music (though less than in The Tree of Life), including the magnificent Cantata BWV 142, ‘Uns ist ein Kind geboren’ (To us a Child is Born).2
To the Wonder interweaves the experiences of its central characters to explore various facets of love. When we first meet Neil (Ben Affleck), he is living in France. The production notes tell us that he went there to try to be a writer, having left behind a ‘string of unhappy affairs’. He is newly in love with Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a Ukrainian woman who has been living in Paris since she was 16, and whose daughter, Tatiana, is the one good thing to come from a brief and unhappy marriage. They are clearly blissfully happy as they wander round Paris and fasten a padlock to the Pont des Arts to symbolise their commitment to each other. The third main character is Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a parish priest in the small town of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, who is having something of an existential crisis.
Neil and Marina visit the abbey of Mont St. Michel on a grey autumn day. It is this place that gives the film its title: ‘the wonder’ is la merveille de l’occident (the wonder of the western world), an epithet applied to Mont St Michel. But what is so significant about this particular scene? It is certainly one which is full of physical contact and intimacy: Neil and Marina are almost constantly touching hands or embracing, and Marina also strokes her hand across the leaves of some roses in the cloister, suggesting emotional connection, not just between the two of them, but with the place. The key thing about Mont St Michel (which appears again in the final shot of the film), of course, is the Abbey; this being a Terrence Malick film, spirituality is an immensely significant theme. Is this scene the point at which physical, emotional, and spiritual connection all come together – a glimpse of what life should be? That could perhaps be why we see Neil and Marina walking on the beach in shots that evoke the final scene of The Tree of Life.
Two years later, Neil and Marina have relocated to Bartlesville, where he is now working as an environmental inspector. At first everything is wonderful: Marina loves the open feel of the place, and Tatiana expects that Neil will soon marry her mother. Marina is hoping for this too, but Neil – who is a man of irritatingly few words – seems to be increasingly distant. Marina cannot help noticing that his eye is drawn to other attractive women (most obviously at the local open-air swimming pool). Neil puts no apparent effort into their relationship, leaving his lover to begin to wonder if she is indeed truly loved.
It is at this point that we meet Father Quintana. Paralleling Neil’s cooling love for Marina, Quintana is struggling with the sense that he feels distant from God:
Everywhere you’re present. And I still can’t see you. You’re within me. Around me. And I have no experience of you. Not as I once did. Why don’t I hold on to what I have found? My heart is cold. Hard. . . . How long will you hide yourself? Let me see you. Let me not pretend – pretend to feelings I don’t have.
While he may be experiencing a spiritual crisis, Quintana remains deeply concerned for the people of his parish, particularly the poor and needy. Yet he is fearful: he feels inadequate to the task, and there is little joy in his life, which his parishioners sense and worry about.
When Marina’s visa expires, her relationship with Neil has deteriorated so much that she and Tatiana return to France. He does nothing whatsoever to dissuade her, though she says, ‘I would have stayed if you’d asked me.’ Instead, Neil embarks on a relationship with an old friend, Jane (Rachel McAdams), whose own marriage has ended painfully. Once more he is in love, and life seems wonderful. Jane, too, feels happy for the first time in a long while, despite her mother’s warning that she is chasing moonbeams. She insists that, ‘I’d rather have a moonbeam than the life I had before.’ Yet when Neil hears that Marina’s circumstances have become very difficult, with Tatiana now living with her father, he enables her to return to Oklahoma. This move sours his relationship with Jane. She says she trusts him and wants to be his wife, but he draws back from any commitment to her. In her mind, this undermines the value of the relationship that they had enjoyed. ‘Walk away,’ she says to herself. ‘I thought I knew you. Now I don’t think you ever were. What we had was nothing. You made it into nothing. Pleasure. Lust.’
This highlights Neil’s fundamental problem, which is that he holds back from committing to Marina or to Jane. He drifts along, his course entirely determined by the changeable winds of his emotions, so when the fresh breeze of feeling in love subsides – as it inevitably does – he stops putting any effort into the relationship. He fails to understand that to love someone is not simply to feel something for them, but to be dedicated to their welfare through the varying circumstances of life. When he marries Marina in a civil ceremony after her return to America, they vow to be faithful to each other as long as they both shall live, but is Neil capable of it? Indeed, is Marina really any more capable of it than he is? It is surely significant that the witnesses to the wedding in the courthouse are handcuffed criminals – people who are, by definition, untrustworthy. Once they are married, Neil continues to be as silent and distant as before, and Marina remains far from the happiness for which she had longed.
Neil’s reluctance to truly love Marina inevitably provokes a response in her. She becomes increasingly conflicted about her feelings towards him, and reflects in a voiceover, ‘My God, what a cruel war. I find two women inside me. One, full of love for you. The other pulls me down towards the earth.’ There are hints that Neil may not be faithful to Marina, and maybe this is what prompts her adultery, along with the unwise advice of a friend who urges her to be free, insisting that ‘life is a dream, and in a dream you can’t make mistakes.’
However, this being a Malick film, there is some ambiguity about who voiceover statements like Marina’s are directed at. Is she inwardly expressing her contradictory feelings towards Neil (understanding ‘my God’ as an expression of despair), or is it a prayer of confession to God (since this comes immediately after we see Marina in confession and taking communion)? If the latter, there is a conscious echo of the Apostle Paul’s words in his letter to the church in Rome (as there also was in The Tree of Life):
I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? (Romans 7:22–24)
We hear some parts of Father Quintana’s sermons, which are about love. He understands well the difference between the feeling of love and the nature of true love:
There is a love that’s like a stream that goes dry when rain no longer feeds it. But there is a love that is like a spring coming up from the earth. The first is human love, the second is divine love and has its source above.
Later, he talks about the need for love to be an act of the will:
Love is not only a feeling. Love is a duty. You shall love. Love is a command. And you say. I can’t command my emotions. They come and go like clouds. To that, Christ says: You shall love. Whether you like it or not. You fear your love has died. It perhaps is waiting to be transformed into something higher.
This ‘something higher’ is a love which is not feeling-driven and fickle, but is constant, unconditional and self-giving – a love which reflects that of God for human beings:
God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love – not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. (1 John 4:9–10)
The essence of genuine love is sacrifice. When we have the intense feeling of being newly in love, we gladly give of ourselves without limit – there is nothing that we would not do for this person whom we love so unreservedly. But as time takes the sheen off what was so fresh and sparkling, and as reality reveals all the imperfections we initially overlooked, we face a choice. We can do as Neil does, and allow our feelings to pull the relationship apart. Or we can choose to love – to love despite circumstances, to love despite tension, to love despite receiving nothing back, because self-giving is what love is. Paul gave the most famous definition of love in one of his letters:
Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. (1 Corinthians 13:4–7)
Towards the end of the film, there are hints that both Neil and Marina have some kind of spiritual awakening (after spending time with Father Quintana, Neil comes to Marina in an attitude of sorrow and repentance, after which we see Marina full of joy and holding her hands up in worship). While they eventually go their separate ways, they have learned to love again. Quintana also seems renewed, having heeded his own words about making the right choice, regardless of feelings. We see him choosing to love God and people by throwing himself into caring for his parishioners with renewed vigour. At the same time, we hear him pray using words from a prayer of St Patrick and also echoing a prayer of Cardinal Newman:
Teach us where to seek you. Christ be with me. Christ before me. Christ behind me. Christ in me. Christ beneath me. Christ above me. Christ on my right, Christ on my left. Christ in the heart.3 Thirsting. We thirst. Flood our souls with your spirit and your life so completely that our lives may only be a reflection of yours. Shine through us. Show us how to seek you. We were made to see you.4
Quintana is once again able to recognise the presence of God all around him. These are almost, but not quite the final words. Those belong to Marina, who prays, ‘Love that loves us, thank you.’ The film finishes with a long shot of Mont St. Michel, but perhaps the ‘wonder’ is not the place itself, but the One to whom it points. The ‘wonder’ which Neil, Marina and Quintana all come to in the end is the Wonder of God himself, the one who is love and who loves us.