Viewing “To the Wonder” with a polite crowd at the Pasadena Laemmle Playhouse 7, I heard snorts of derisions. Don’t let negative comments dissuade you from seeing “To the Wonder,” but you’ll have to take a different mindset with you.  Think visual and abstract over concrete.

One common comment made by more than one person was that Terrence Malick’s latest film is nothing more than a string perfume commercials without product placement.

Would a photographer say that? It’s doubtful. As a once aspiring product photographer and a great admirer of Horst P. Horst, I wouldn’t laugh at someone who has reached the top of the profession. I don’t know how much those cinematographers for perfume commercials are paid, but they are the movie heirs to Horst at their best. Perfume houses would hardly continue to put out such short pieces if they weren’t successful and just what is the point of those commercials? By creating a feeling or image that is attractive to the consumer, the cinematographers are selling a product.

And just what is Malick selling here? The movie reminded me of a couple of things:

  1. I’ve always wanted to visit Mont St. Michel.
  2. An old fellow grad student at UCLA had a Persian girlfriend once.
  3. A recent conversation at Ebertfest.

The movie begins at Mont St. Michel with a couple–an American man, Neil,  played by Ben Affleck and a French woman, Marina, played by Olga Kurylenko. What a curiousity! Who would have thought to build such a strategic fort on a sometimes island. The image is both romantic and mysterious, and instantly gives us a location.   Marina has a young teenaged daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline).

Marina narrates in French. Get ready because this is an American movie with plenty of subtitles. She is in love and ponders about this unity of two separate entities and rejoices “to the wonder.” This is the honeymoon phase of any romance.

At that stage, it’s easy to get along with someone you can’t communicate well with, even in your own language. Feelings are at times like one’s breath on a cold day, you can see it and almost feel it but not really touch it and hold it in your hand. Feelings and thoughts, though are an important part of love, to my mind. Yet my friend, who was fluent in many languages, but spoke no Farsi told me that his Parisian romance with a Iranian Persian woman was wonderful, the absolute best because they never argued. Or rather, they couldn’t argue.

That kind of romance seems to be Stepford wife-ish or like that old song “Robot Man” where “we’d never fight because it would be impossible for him to speak.”

Both Neil and Marina are two attractive people attracted to each other. Marina elicits smiles from the reticent Neil by dancing in the streets. It’s both charming and childish. Neither Neil nor Marina could probably conjure up enough of the other’s language into a string of magically witty sentences to produce such smiles linguistically.

Neil brings Marina and Tatiana back to his house in Oklahoma. There’s something not right with his house. We don’t know how long he’s lived there, but there’s a sense that he hasn’t really moved in. There’s something missing, even Marina’s daughter later senses it.

Marina and Anna only see the beautiful side of the U.S. Neil, in his work, trudges around land and water ruined by industrialization. The images here forces us to recall the romantic beauty of Marina and Neil in the mud just as the tide slowly comes back in at Mount St. Michel. Here, Neil is alone in the mud and the scene is far from pretty. Neil also accompanies a priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) on his rounds.

The father might prowl below gorgeous stained glass windows amongst the shiny clean wood pews, but he is troubled and has lost faith. We hear his thoughts in Spanish. Inside the sparsely attended church services we see Neil and Marina. The father is not judgmental.

On his rounds with Neil, we see the people of this small town in Oklahoma living in houses that are weatherworn and nearly as broken down as the people. The inhabitants, both white and black, suffer from a number of ailments and it’s suggests, well, everything in this movie is suggested rather than clearly stated, that many of the inhabitants problems are related to environmental pollution.

Neil won’t or can’t marry Marina and eventually her visa expires and she and Tatiana must return. My research shows that for stays of 90-days or less, holders of French passports do not need a visa.  The maximum stay for a B-2 Tourist Visa is six months and the holder has the right to request an extension. Neil doesn’t give Marina a reason to stay although in voiceover, she would have stayed if she had asked.

When she returns to Paris, things don’t go well for Marina. She’s jobless and she sends Tatiana to live with her father. Although Neil has become re-acquainted with the lovely blonde Jane (Rachel McAdams), he resolves to save Marina by marrying her.

Yet even after they marry, their house doesn’t acquire a homey feel. We’ve seen the rich and lived in house of Jane where everything suggests settling in and nesting. Neil and Marina are still in boxes and otherwise minimalist furniture. Too neat in the public area and too bare in the privacy of their bedrooms.

Neil and Marina understand each other well enough to argue now, but not to understand and their frustration becomes destructive. Yet the breaking of things never rises to the level of physical threat. Marina feels the touch of temptation. Her friend, the Italian-speaking (yes, more subtitles) Anna (Romina Mondello) urges to be free. Throw away your purse…you can come back for it later. Apparently Neil goes off on walk-abouts, disappearing. For how long and how often, Marina doesn’t explain. Then Marina decides to take an afternoon off from her marriage at a seedy hotel room. You don’t get the sense of carnal passion, but passivity. Marina wants change; she wants to end her marriage, but how other than adultery?

According to IMDb, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who worked on both this and the earlier 2011 “The Tree of Life,”  explained that for Malick, “Photography is not used to illustrate dialogue or a performance” but instead, the images we see are “to capture emotion so that the movie is very experiential” and each image is “meant to trigger tons of memories, like a scent or a perfume.”

Reading various reviews and viewer reactions, the story is very open to interpretation, but so was the ending of the more easily accessible “Titanic.” Do Neil and Marina get back together in a bigger, better house and have kids or is that just a dream or an illusion. Is Marina sadly plagued with some character defect or mental disease that makes her dance and wander through life? Does she end up a homeless woman with only a small dog as a friend as she sleeps rough under the stars in clothes that are dirty and stained? Does she revisit Mont St-Michel attempting to re-capture that moment when she had her daughter and a handsome lover and she was lost “to the wonder”? Or perhaps, the most cynical interpretation was that the whole movie was a dream of a tortured mind and the only reality is a woman sleeping on a field followed by a dog and tragedy.

Does the uncertainty bother us? Does that make the film less than perfect? Why can’t we have a movie that inspires a Rashomon experience for the audience?

So often we hear someone say of a movie adaptation that the book was better. The book can describe in detail what would be too tedious and deadly lengthy in a movie. What a movie does better is present images and Malick doesn’t succumb to the temptation of CGI.

During Ebertfest, after the screening of Malick’s “Days of Heaven,” I overheard some audience members complaining about the lack of concrete facts for “I Remember” and, almost in the same breath, the inability to hear all parts of the conversation in Malick’s 1978 “Days of Heaven.”  That movie’s cinematography was by Néstor Almendros (1930-1992) with additional photography by Haskell Wexler.

Yet perhaps those viewers missed the point. Just as we never hear the argument that ends with Bill (Richard Gere) accidentally killing his boss in Chicago and sends Bill, his girl Abby (Brooke Adams) and Linda (Linda Manz) on the run, we never hear the argument between Neil and Marina. The words aren’t important. If Malick the writer had given us dialogue, we might have obsessed on the words, but so often the words we spew out when anger boils our brains aren’t really worth noting.

Like the perfume commercials, these scenes by their angle, lighting and composition are meant to convey feelings and emotions, to conjure up memories of our past, real or imagined. The best approach is an open-mind that absorbs visual cues, as if you were watching a foreign drama despite this being a production by an American director.

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