Banal ideas presented as deep thoughts and bandied about in a self-consciously poetic style are the essence of “To the Wonder,” the latest unsuccessful effort by Terrence Malick to prove he’s the cinematic artist so many critics have claimed he is. It has some beautiful images—though frankly not as many as one might expect—but is unconscionably obvious and redundant, shedding no appreciable light on the subject it seeks to address. Though smaller in scale than Malick’s previous film, the flamboyantly artsy “The Tree of Life,” it’s similarly potent evidence of the writer-director’s descent into a profound pretentiousness of message, unhappily wed to an equally profound pretentiousness of technique. The real reason for wonderment is that many critics are likely to shower it with lavish praise.
The film begins—and closes—with the structure that’s identified as the titular “wonder”—the medieval Norman-Breton monastery of Mont-Saint-Michel, which we first see Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) visiting. In addition to investigating the interior gardens of the remarkable abbey—built on an offshore hill over 200 feet high linked to the mainland by a causeway that was once covered by the sea when the tide came in (and the most popular tourist site in France after Versailles)—the couple walk on the surrounding land as it’s slowly being covered by the water.
That ebb and flow becomes the motif of the film, which goes on to portray the on-and-off character of Neil and Marina’s relationship. The joyful moments are depicted through repetitive scenes of her gamboling about beautiful Parisian parks and then vast Oklahoma fields, where the two move (along with Marina’s 10-year old daughter Tatiana, played by Tatiana Chiline), though she even dances atop their bed in Bartlesville, where they settle (and where Neil, who’s some sort of engineer, stalks around oilfields for signs of environmental contamination). Meanwhile the episodes of romance on the rocks are represented by long, desultory shots of Neil and Marina brooding and grimacing as they prowl around their house’s hallways and large, barren yard. These sequences—which drag on interminably, accompanied by supposedly penetrating though actually vacuous narration from Marina—are apparently intended to prove that Malick is the American Antonioni. (He wishes.) And they’re interrupted by an episode in which Marina actually goes back to France—and Neil takes up briefly with an erstwhile girlfriend (Rachel McAdams)—before she returns and they resume their now-joyous, now-poisonous life together.
But there’s a second strand to the “plot,” which one can trace back to the sacred space of Mont-Saint-Michel too—a search for communion with God. That’s represented by Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), Bartlesville’s morose parish priest, who—between pedestrian sermons that he doles out to sparse congregations, marriages he performs without conviction, and sessions with Marina (at one point giving her communion privately in church)—wanders about the poorer sections of town, offering comfort to the downtrodden that proves cold indeed, both for them and him, while reciting lugubrious voice-overs about his desperate desire for a sense of personal union with Christ that he never really feels. It seems that in Malick’s universe, it’s as hard to connect with God vas it is to enjoy a relationship of continuing love with another human being.
Admirers might call all this ruminative, even somehow deep; but in reality it’s merely languid (even in the sequences of Marina’s joyful dancing, which go on forever) and shallow. Things perk up momentarily in a few scenes with Chiline as the volatile, mouthy Tatiana, and there’s a curious sequence with Romina Mondello as Anna, Marina’s fiery Italian friend, who shows up without explanation to encourage the unhappy woman to break out of her rut and declare her independence. But these more energetic interruptions don’t add much meat to the dramatically desiccated bones that make up the picture’s flabby narrative. “To the Wonder” winds up in a single shot of Mont-Saint-Michel in the distance, as if to remind us of the key metaphor the picture started with but signally failed to illuminate with any emotional impact.
One pities the cast, especially Affleck, who’s stuck with a part so vacuous that it might have been played by a handsome wooden mannequin, and Bardem, whose doleful countenance and unvaryingly pained manner make him a consummate bore from his first appearance. One senses more depth in Marina, but the character remains obstinately opaque, and Kurylenko can do little to bring her to life, though she prances about with aplomb in those repetitive dance sequences. But all three, as well as the supporting players, are props that have as much authentic humanity to them as the wheat in the Oklahoma fields that Emmanuel Lubezki has photographed, along with everything else, with poise, even in the hand-held shots. The background score makes use of classical clips—most notably from Wagner’s Parsifal prelude—interspersed with newly-composed cuts by Hanan Townshend that are fairly innocuous and unobtrusive.
As so often happens with bad movies, “To the Wonder” includes a line of dialogue that somehow seems a perfect summation. This time it comes from the exuberant Anna, who looks around at Marina’s life and says, “There’s nothing here!” Malick’s film will get predictable plaudits from many critics, but the fact is that once again, this cinematic emperor arrives very scantily attired.