Friday, June 12, 2015

The Soul is under the Skin – On To The Wonder by Terrence Malick, USA: 2012


(For the German version published in shomingeki Nr. 25 please click here)

For A.B and T.G.

What is this love that loves us?
That comes from Nowhere
From all around.
The sky
You Cloud, You love me too. (Monologue from Marina)

There is a jazz ballad called Body And Soul which was interpreted by so much great musicians. This comes to my mind when I think about the last films by Terrence Malick. Sure,  last but not least all these films include philosophical, spiritual and even religious ideas. The fact the films are blamed by many so-called critics as esoteric and even as kitsch either amuses me or makes me very angry. At least in the Western Cinema of the last decades, I can´t remember any other films which are as much in love with the physical perceptible world. The only “close relative” to Terrence Malick from the film countries of the West seems to me the French master Jean Renoir and especially his films Une Partie de Campagne and The River.
One of the three films from the French Series Les Cinéastes de Notre Temps which are dedicated to Jean Renoir and made by Jacques Rivette is a recording of a conversation between Renoir and the French actor Michel Simon. I do not remember exactly if Renoir has cited or has expressed his own thoughts when he said: “The soul is not in the heart and not in the head but directly under the skin.” I can´t imagine any better sentence to describe my fascination for the films by Terrence Malick.

The film begins with two lovers, the American Neil and the Ukrainian-French Marina. They travel by train through Europe and they are visiting different places in Europe. Even more than in The New World the distinctive fluid camera movements by Emmanuel Lubezki seem like an endless dance which will be mostly answered by Marina. That has the same eloquence like we know from the films by Max Ophüls and Kenji Mizoguchi but on the other hand it is impossible to reduce it just on its artistry. It seems to be filmed like it was once felt.

At the beginning the bodies of the lovers appear weightless. As the film proceeds the gravitation will reconquer the bodies of the lovers. An excursion to the Mont St. Michel in the Normandie and later a walk at the beach during low tide and close to the high tide. The first moments of the film appear like memories, moments already taken out of time. The couple moves pending and gliding through this space and this scene has almost a dreamlike quality, a dream which will clear away as the film proceeds. They will remember this experience and they will try to hold this dream which is already a lost dream.

Just a few moments later, there is a scene which belongs to the most eloquent and at the same time to the most moving scenes in a film by Terrence Malick. In a Park in Paris, Neil asks Marina if she and her 10 years old daughter will come with him to America. This moment is literally very moving, the handheld camera dances to the whole scene and especially Olga Kurylenko is dancing like a female dervish. In this park we see something like a mini version of the Statue Of Liberty. In this scene the euphory of love, the promise of fortune in the far away America in its formal playfulness an enchanting cinematic moment. With a shot of the sea, the film leads over to the house in America where Neil lives. This a moment of dreamlike beauty which justifies already after a few minutes the “wonder” in the title of the film.

Especially this promise will be disappointed later. We see enchanting American landscapes filmed in a light which I have never seen in cinema before and since To The Wonder. But we see also abased landscapes. The estate of Neils house is surrounded by a high fence. Neil the geologists takes samples from the soil in this neighbourhood and declares this soil as contaminated with poisonous stuff which endangers the life of people and animals.
While gradually the happiness of the couple breaks through betrayal and ignorance the film offers more and more insights to the shady sides of America. Traces of poverty, loneliness and despair are interwoven in the film which tells at the same time about a love relationship which is becoming more and more difficult. We see drug addicted and dangerous criminals in a jail. A Spanish priest who is obviously in a crisis of faith offers the prisoners the sacrament. Behind the walls of this maximum security prison, there is no entrance for the wonderful light. These ugly sides of the civilization sometimes collide with moments of the probably most beautiful light I can remember.

Malick´s cinema is a cinema of intensities and these intensities can vary from euphoria to an absolute despair. Some of these intensities we can already see in Olga Kurylenko´s face. To talk about the human faces in Malick´s films (which remind me always in the films of the Bengali master Ritwik Ghatak) there are these moments when the formal artistry is suspended and disappears behind truly and naked emotions. This makes the whole film as vulnerable like the emotions and characters it reveals.

Terrence Malick´s films have always originated awesome female characters, the characters performed by Sissy Spacek, Brooke Adams, Linda Manz, Q´Orianka Kilcher and probably the most impressive character performed by Olga Kurylenko.

In comparison to the time-consuming work on The Tree of Life, To The Wonder seems to be originated from a relaxed promenade. It is the more astounding that this “smaller” film by Malick continues seamless the series of masterpieces since 1998. This period began with three epic films, two of them on American history. Where The Tree of Life for example connects the birth and death of the universe with a very intimate family story and where Malick brings together the world of the matter with the spiritual world, To The Wonder connects the earthly and physical love between people with the spiritual love together. These two kinds of love are never opposed, they supplement each other. The Spanish priest is after Neil and Marina the third main character of this film. The religiousness in the films by Terrence Malick is especially one of the bodies of the living beings and the landscapes. Much more more than in the mystery of the creation Malick seems to be fascinated by its results.

When we see the priest performing uninspired sermon in a nearly deserted church, he seems to be isolated in his despair. As a contrast we see him later working in the prison. One can sense now a special tenderness towards the failed individuals of this world. Or later his commitment when he helps old people to walk, offers a dying old person the last sacrament or when he gives his jacket away for an aging drug addicted woman. As soon as the priest commits himself to the worldly reality (especially at the end of the film) it brings him -  not closer to God  -than at least it offers him the closest contact to the result of the creation. Exactly in these moments a film by Terrence Malick becomes a visual prayer. Near the end is another wonderful moment, a prayer-like monologue of the priest talking to Jesus Christ.
Christ be with me
Christ before me.
Christ behind me.
Christ in me.
Christ beneath me.
Christ above me.
Christ on my right.
Christ on my left
Christ in my heart.

During this monologue we see again one of these memory-like sequences when Marina watches a child which is feeding goose. The most striking aspect in this monologue is that it is based on very concrete physical orientation like with in, behind, neath, on my left etc.That reminds as well in the first tries of children to express a very physical-spatial orientation in words. Whenever we have to talk about religious aspects in films by Terrence Malick, dogmatic preaching or ideological predetermination we will never find.

To The Wonder is like I said before a long and ecstatic dance and finally Malick is the Dervish who combines the movements of the camera and the actors to one coherent movement.

One can always talk about the light in this film which is typical for the last films by Terrence Malick. It is well known that Malick always uses (as far as the technique allows) natural light sources. But light is much more as a technical aspect of film making.Last but not least it is one of the key elements of cinema, film making as well like film projection. And it is at the same time the key element of the world, the formation and the visualisation. Light comes in a concrete way from the sun as the source of life. Like in The Tree of Life, light is always both, a measurably physical process but as well a symbol which goes through all human civilizations and religions. In another impressing scene we see the priest together with a black church servant who cleans the coloured windows of the church. The servant describes the light that “hit´s you” which enters in different colours through the glass. Once again there is a combination of the meaning of the light as a physical phenomenon but as well as a spiritual symbol. When the priest holds his hand on the window one can almost feel the warmth of the filtered sun rays. In other moments we see landscapes in a red and golden light lightening the faces of the protagonists. The light of this film will hunt me forever.

In many ways it makes sense to me that some critics consider The Tree of Life and To The Wonder as the beginning of Terrence Malick´s autobiographical period. (His newest film Knight Of Cups confirms that again) Maybe slightly more encrypted than in The Tree of Life (see remarks and links at the end of this text), To The Wonder includes again a life confession, in this film a failed love relationship.The intensity in which this relationship is filmed makes it impossible for me to imagine that Malick has filmed that without having experienced that before. In my text on The Tree Of Life I defined my own term, the “Malick paradox" And I refer to the authenticity of emotions and moods which appear despite all logistic and technical aspects of film making nearly unfiltered and f for this reason so affecting.

The last films by Terrence Malick are unique in their almost provoking vulnerability. I am literally touched by his films, because they often deal with touches. One should take attention how the lovers touch each other and how  (except outbursts of violence) caresses are dying when their relationship is in its decline.

At the end Marina will leave the country. The love has failed, the divorce is legally executed. The farewell at the airport and the unbearable sad long walk of Marine through the gangway to her aircraft evokes the certainty that this farewell is final.

The final of the film consists mostly of memory like fragments. We see again some breathtaking beautiful landscapes. Marina appears again after the farewell like Pocahontas in The New World after a letter has pronounced her death as a being of a subjective memory. And again fragments of happiness appear but now as moments passed by long ago. It almost seems that Marina has passed away. In these sequences there is the dance of Marina in a super market, a moment mostly ridiculed in negative reviews of this film. For me it is a moment which is so crazy, incredible beautiful and affecting at the same time that I  always have to take a deep breath. Oh if I could stop the film at this wonderful moment!

Like so often we see Olga Kurylenko moves rather dancing than walking through the landscape. In one moment the light of the sinking sunpenetrates her beautiful face like X-rays. This moment is as dramatic as the image of the dying sun burning our planet in The Tree Of Life. And like at the end of The Thin Red Line the film ends with a glimpse of the lost paradise in this case their voyagage to the  Mt. Saint Michel, the final image of the film.

The film goes always under my skin and I mean that literally because according to Renoir the soul is directly under the skin.

Rüdiger Tomczak

I can´t recommend often enough the wonderful text by Adrian Martin on The Tree Of Life, Great Events andOrdinary People which is a laudatio for this film but as much an excellent observation of Malick´s work and how it is embedded in the history of cinema.

A treasure for biographical details of Terrence Malick is the book One Big Soul by Paul Meher jr, 2012.

Two other texts are very interesting biographical details, The Runaway Genius by Peter Biskind (which I recommend not without reservations)

and an inspiring essay by Bob Turner on To The Wonder

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