Years ago, I saw The New World on the recommendation of a friend. Here's a taste:
It was my first Malick film, and as much as I was awed by its external transcendence, its deeper substance really burrowed into me. I rented it, watched it, went to bed, and when I arose the next morning after a mostly-sleepless night, sat down to watch the whole thing again. I have tried to write about it, but could hardly even think about it except in waves of images and isolated thoughts, never coherent enough to string together. Though this is grossly over-simplistic, I will say that it is a story about hurt and healing. Healing triumphs, but in a devastatingly pyrrhic victory -- old wounds remain latent, sabotaging the future with poison from the past. Watching it uncovered deep layers of unsettled feelings, pain I had either forgotten or chosen to ignore.
I always come late to the most interesting conversations, especially where my friend Rod is concerned -- he who can create a niche market, document a paradigm shift and defend a worldview in the time it takes me to have one slightly original thought. But, in light of the above experience, I am finding the need to add to the dialogue of his recent musings (starting here, and continuing here and here) about Malick's latest film. To the Wonder.
I watched this one alone on a whim, and I liked it; especially the priest, who is the central character regardless of screentime. It didn't have the same effect right away. Some days later, I discovered my whole family was miffed at me because they had wanted to see it too. So we watched it together, and after the second viewing, we all started to think and talk about it -- a conversation that continued for several weeks.
There is literally no way I can spoil the plot, because there is no plot, other than the general arc of a couple who falls in love in Paris and then tries to make their relationship last back in the United States. The ending is ambiguous and has already provoked several arguments. But this movie is not about the plot; it's about the details. There are three I keep coming back to.
Kinesis: as The Times reviewer mentioned, the female lead is constantly in motion. She spins, chases, flings her arms wide to embrace the heavens, all to an introspective French voiceover that sounds as italic as its subtitles look. She is lovely, and Malick's camerawork is masterful; every shot is frameable, every scene a living poem. It's surprising, then, that it rings so hollow. My mother pointed out that all the leaping and tumbling left the characters with nothing solid to hold on to -- searching for ground, they came up with only air. (Their house, which remains huge and unfurnished, is another indicator of their empty lives.)
Nature: like every other Malick film, this one shows a profound respect for, and unabashed adoration of, the natural world. Trees, beaches, gardens and fields all get the same breathless reverence. But this time, there is more: through the story of a priest who struggles with eternal questions, Malick shows us that even his own masterpieces are worthless to the extent that they don't acknowledge their ultimate creator. The tongues of men and angels, which few would argue he has mastered on film, are merely noise next to a heart of faith and a hand of mercy.
Place: A picture is worth a thousand words, and there are thousands of pictures in a film, so it stands to reason that there should be very little explanation necessary. Mercifully, Malick lets his shots speak for themselves. America is sun-kissed grass, Paris rain-dampened cobblestone. The Sonic drive-in glows just as the shimmering beaches of Mont-Saint-Michel do -- one wholesome, one exotic, both glorious. I was actually a little disappointed when I realized that La Merveille, The Wonder, is a physical place; I had first read that line as a metaphysical statement, about the power of love to transform a quotidian hour into an ethereal one.
It's this last idea that has stuck with me most since I saw the film. Without even meaning to, I often imagine my own life as Terrence Malick might see it. Entering my hushed classroom in the early morning, slowly raising the shades and looking out to the glorious fog-drenched expanse of trees below. Scattering grain to a feathery patchwork of black and gold. Standing in a darkened church, sweet harmony mingling with the dissonant cries of children. Entering the pantry to the pillowy-sweet scent of fresh apples, letting them cook in butter until the sugar runs a sticky amber. Climbing between clean, soft flannel sheets and yielding to the stillness of sleep.
Each day is full of moments like this. Sometimes I see them, and just as often I let them slip by unnoticed. But thanks to the magic of my own personal merveille, awakened by this lovely film, they are always there.