The opening of Terrence Malick's latest film, To the Wonder, is undeniably compelling. A man (Ben Affleck) and a woman (Olga Kurylenko) are touring Paris, caressing and ogling each other with an intensity that conveys, without a need for words, that these two have recently met and are madly, passionately in love. In fragmented shots that seem to move back and forth through a fairly short window of time, we see them in the city, at a park, on a train, at Mont St. Michel. Though there are few words throughout these incomplete scenes, other than the woman's enigmatic voice-over on the nature of love, the shifting, swirling technique works. After all, this is a whirlwind romance. What place do clarity or logic have in it?
But when you realize that this is going to be the format of the entire movie, To the Wonder begins to disappoint. A person can take only so many stunning visuals and mysterious pronouncements before wanting to have at least something to tie it all together.
The story, such as it is, centers on the American engineer Neil (Affleck) and the Parisian Marina (Kurlyenko) who fall in love in Paris and try, naively, to start a life together back on the flat prairie of Oklahoma. Marina has a young daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), who comes with them. Unsurprisingly, the relationship doesn't work out, and it appears that Neil essentially kicks the two of them out (though it's nearly impossible to know anything for sure in this film). They return to Paris.
While Marina is gone, Neil starts a relationship with a woman rancher from his past (Rachel McAdams). The emotionally repressed Neil breaks her heart as well, and then Marina comes back sans Tatiana, who is living with her father in France. The couple tries to make it work again, only to fail even more miserably this time around.
Interspersed with these scenes of love, loneliness, and fury are glimpses of a kind Spanish priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who is losing his faith. Despite his internal struggle, he is an amazing priest, ministering to the sick, poor, and elderly, and offering comfort to everyone from drug addicts to the dying. He, the rancher, and Marina provide most of the speaking in this film, a huge part of which is delivered through voice-over.
All of this makes for a beautiful, but at times incomprehensible hour and 50 minutes. The film could be seen as a meditation on love — a slightly narrower topic than Malick's last film, Tree of Life, which took for its premise, life, the universe, and everything — but it's a deeply melancholic one. Marina is joyful and childlike, dancing, jumping, and spinning nearly every time she appears, but her joy seems hollow. That's at least partly due to the juxtaposition of her and Tatiana's smiles with Neil's nearly unbroken silence and the sterility of the brand-new house in an unfinished subdivision that he moves them into. The 10-year-old, unhappy Tatiana sums up their situation, and really the whole movie, with one of her few lines: "There's something missing."
Along with the experimental narrative, one of the most noticeable things about To the Wonder is the ever-present sense of danger. In one of the first shots we see of Neil and Marina, she's biting him playfully. The camera closes in on her face, mouth open, teeth bared, eyes slightly wild. Later, at Mont St. Michel, the couple wander the beach surrounding the fortress as the tide rolls in. The sand is sticky and unstable, resembling quicksand, and each gets momentarily stuck. All the while, the tide continues to advance.
Then there's the lead-and-cadmium-laced water that is poisoning impoverished families back in Oklahoma. And later, when Neil and Marina begin having problems, the menace becomes even more overt. In one bedroom scene, Neil pulls back Marina's head, exposing her throat to his touch. He wraps her face in a sheer curtain, and she tries to bite him through it. This is dangerous territory they've stumbled into, and the way they react is by subtly — perhaps unconsciously — trying to destroy each other.
The Father Quintana story is more understandable and much more sympathetic. He's such a good and giving person that it's hard not to get wrapped up in his personal tragedy, as he tries to hide his own doubts from the parishioners who need him. As for the part about Neil and his beautiful rancher love interest, well, that's the most confusing section of the movie. The only thing that's clear is that Neil can't or won't give her the love she needs, which is pretty much par for the course for his character.
But despite the esoteric, disorienting, and at times frustrating nature of To the Wonder, it's clear from the get-go this is an art-film masterpiece — maybe just one that most people won't understand. The cinematography is stunning, the acting incredible, and the emotional heft weighty. If you've got a couple hours to spare, and feel no need for a cohesive narrative, give it a try. And you don't have to worry about falling asleep partway through. You'll still have about as good an idea of what happened as the rest of us.