With certain films, we know each and every detail about the plot summary, cast, credits, score and (if possible) DVD release date before it even reaches the theaters. And then there are the films of Terrence Malick, to which we know very little … even after we have seen them (Yes, I’m looking at you, The Tree of Life.) So even though we are hours from when Malick’s To the Wonder plays at the Venice Film Festival, we’re just now getting an official plot synopsis, as well as some supplemental details on the mysterious director’s pending effort.
We’ll save the full plot synopsis until the end, as the movie’s spelled out in great detail (courtesy of a release obtained by The Film Stage. First, we want to get to Wonder star Ben Affleck’s comments about the film (of which it’s possible he has been cut). Speaking to Hollywood Elsewhere at the Telluride Film Festival, Affleck said Malick’s new film “makes The Tree of Life look like Transformers.” And in the press notes for Wonder, the actor went on to say, “The film feels to me like more a memory of a life than a literal story in real time of someone’s life, the way movies more commonly are. This pastiche of impressionistic moments, skipping across the character’s life and moving in a nonlinear way, mirror, in my mind, the way one remembers one’s life. It’s a little hypnotic and you’re a little bit in a daze -- it’s more fluid than real life is.”
Oh, man. Sounds like critics will gush, while Joe Public will push Malick lovers out of the way to get to Skyfall. And really, isn’t that the way it goes with most of Malick’s films? He creates for a very specific audience. Often it’s beautiful … and often, it’s largely overlooked. But I’m glad he continues to work.
We’ll catch up with Wonder in Toronto. Until then, Film Stage also acquired the film’s soundtrack listing, and compiled YouTube clips to classical music track that Malick might use in the film. That’s a bit of legwork for songs that the director could slice out (for all we know), so we’ll stick with the full synopsis, which we’re listing below:
TO THE WONDER, written and directed by Terrence Malick, is a romantic drama centered on Neil, a man who is torn between two loves: Marina, the European woman who came to United States to be with him, and Jane, the old flame he reconnects with from his hometown. In TO THE WONDER, Malick explores how love and its many phases and seasons – passion, sympathy, obligation, sorrow, indecision – can transform, destroy, and reinvent lives.
As TO THE WONDER opens, Neil and Marina are together on the French island of Mont St. Michel – known in France as The Wonder of the Western World (Merveille de l’Occident) – and invigorated by feelings of being newly in love. Neil, an aspiring writer, has left the United States in search of a better life, leaving behind a string of unhappy affairs. Looking into Marina’s eyes as the Abbey looms in the distance, Neil is certain he has finally found the one woman he can love with commitment. He makes a vow to be true to this woman alone.
Marina, quiet and beautiful, with flashes of a mischievous humor, is divorced and the mother of a 10-year-old daughter, Tatiana. At 16, Marina left the Ukraine for Paris without a cent to her name. There, she married a Frenchman who abandoned her after just two years, leaving her alone with Tatiana in a studio apartment. Marina was forced to work a variety of temporary jobs to make her way. Having nearly given up hope, Marina is overcome with joy to be in love with Neil, her salvation from an unhappy future.
Two years later, Neil and Marina are living in a small town in Oklahoma, close to where Neil grew up. Neil, having given up his hopes of becoming a writer, has taken a job as an environmental inspector. Neil is happy with his work, but his love for Marina cools as she, for her part, is frustrated by the holding pattern she feels she is in with Neil. She fears her youth – and happiness – are slipping away. In spite of her anxieties about Neil, Marina initially feels at home in Oklahoma, embraced by the open space and sky, and soothed by the sounds that come from the wind harp that animates breezes into songs.
Seeking advice, Marina turns to another exile in the community, a Catholic priest named Quintana. We learn that Father Quintana has come to grapple with his own dilemmas, as he harbors doubts about his vocation. He no longer feels the ardor he knew in the first days of his faith, and wonders if he ever will again.
Professional life throws Neil into conflict as well, when he discovers that a smelting operation in town is polluting the soil and water and threatening the health of future generations. His concerns fail to persuade his neighbors, who depend on the smelter for their livelihoods. Under pressure to keep quiet, Neil must once again weigh the consequences of his actions.
Neil’s doubts about Marina intensify. This, coupled with the fact that Marina’s visa is soon to expire, leads her to return to France with her daughter. In her absence, Neil reconnects with Jane, an old friend. As the two of them fall deeply in love, Neil finds this new relationship far less complicated. Yet when word comes to him that Marina has fallen on hard times and her daughter has gone to live with her father and refuses to have anything more to do with her, he finds himself gripped by a sense of responsibility for her wellbeing, and arranges for her return to the United States.
Neil’s entanglements with the two women in his life, and Father Quintana’s struggle with his faith, force them both to consider different kinds of love. Should the commitment they each made be undertaken as a duty, sometimes full of effort? Or should we accept that love often changes, and doesn’t always last? Can sorrow bind lovers more tightly than joy?