With screenings of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” suddenly popping up all over the place — to the consternation, I believe, of Venice festival brass, who usually secure world premiere slots for their Competition titles — Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder” stands as the greatest unwrapped enigma of the fall festival season. Typically for the publicity-shy director, details of the narrative and stylistic construction of his latest have been spare. There’s been no trailer. No poster, either. And while a single still has been floating around online for over a year, no others have joined it to show us what visual poetry Emmanuel Lubezki might have up his sleeve this time round.
We’ve known for some time that “To the Wonder” — the first film of Malick’s career with a more or less contemporary setting — is a romance of sorts, centering around a reunion between childhood friends Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams. The synopsis from production company FilmNation offers a few more specifics — as well as an explanation of the film’s only superficially oblique title — that suggests the autobiographical urges that propelled last year’s “The Tree of Life” may once more be at play here.
The synopsis reads:
After visiting Mont Saint-Michel – once known in France as the Wonder – at the height of their love, Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck) come to Oklahoma, where problems soon arise. Marina makes the acquaintance of a priest and fellow exile (Javier Bardem), who is struggling with his vocation, while Neil renews his ties with a childhood friend, Jane (Rachel McAdams). An exploration of love in its many forms.
Over at Hollywood Elsewhere, Jeff Wells has been joining the dots between the skeleton of the blurb and the thrice-married Malick’s own romantic past — in particular, the dissolution of his second marriage to Frenchwoman Michele Morette. Shortly after divorcing Morette in 1998, Malick married Alexandra Wallace, whom he had allegedly previously known and dated when they were both students at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Austin, Texas.
Clearly, it doesn’t take a genius to deduce that Malick hasn’t conjured this story out of thin air, but Wells’ assertion that the evident autobiographical parallels are “ironic given his mania for privacy” don’t really fly when you consider at once how much and how little Malick revealed of his childhood in “The Tree of Life,” which evokes his own small-town adolescence in Waco, Texas, addresses his conflicted relationship with his own domineering father and pivots on the death of a brother — Malick’s younger brother, Larry, committed suicide as a young man, having earlier broken his own hands to end his music career.
Still, you’d be hard pressed to call the film particularly open or confessional: the memories are there, but scrambled, amid larger, less intimate musings on the natural and spiritual words. I imagine “To the Wonder” will take a similarly indirect, outwardly mirroring approach; personal catharsis seems of less interest to Malick than universalization.
I don’t think it’s particularly ironic for a private artist to use his personal history as a creative springboard, when he’s the one who gets to ration, contextualize and even disguise it for our interpretation: Venice director Alberto Barbera has remarked that Malick’s latest is characterised by a “main recurring theme [of] crisis — the economic crisis, which is having devastating social effects, but also the crisis of values, the political crisis.” Wells professes bafflement at this possibility, but it seems to be expected that a film drawn from Terrence Malick’s romantic past would be about most things but Terrence Malick’s romantic past. I’m reminded of a lovely quote from Niles Schwartz’s excellent essay on “The Tree of Life” in The Point, in which he suggests the actual motive of Malick’s supposedly personal filmmaking:
Malick”s Song of Himself is also a Song to our Selves, and to the Great Self. We are imprisoned, shackled, encaged in modernity”s forms and banal tropes, in our lives and in our arts and entertainments. But Malick wants to take us home, where our masks fall off and wash away in the collective ocean. That bridge that ends the picture is a modern Jacob”s Ladder, designed to carry us back before the accidents of being-in-the-world that make us what we appear to be in Time. At the end of Malick”s journey, we encounter ourselves, and in ourselves, we see everyone else.
I’ll be seeing “To the Wonder” at Venice in exactly 13 days’ time. I can hardly wait.