I watched Terrence Malick’s film To The Wonder this past weekend. It’s a difficult movie, one that most people won’t like. I found it haunting and gorgeous, and profoundly religious. I’m still trying to decode it; this is not a movie whose message is obvious; in fact, it was all I could do in liturgy today not to think about it, as its deeper themes and messages revealed themselves in contemplation. The film reminded me of a Wallace Stevens poem, actually. I’m going to talk about it below the jump to avoid spoilers. There will be spoilers, to be clear, but I don’t want to foist them on someone who wants to see the movie. However, this is a film that is so unconventional that it’s hard for there to be any real spoilers. There’s no real narrative tension; it unspools like a dream. The film, it seems to me, is about the difficulty of holding on to wonder, and to love, stuck as we are in the everyday. Watch the trailer. If it grabs you, you might want to see the film. More below the jump.
The plot is simple. Ben Affleck is an American living in France, where he falls in love with Olga Kurylenko, a French-Russian single mom. They make a trip to the “Wonder,” which is what the French call Mont-St-Michel abbey. Their love is born there, and in the beauty of Paris — a Paris that’s grey, wintry, and moody, compared with the warm, effusive, dreamy love inside of them. Ben invites Olga to move back to Oklahoma with him, and she does. The light is far brighter in Oklahoma, but the landscape, built and natural, is far more mundane. The film follows Ben and Olga falling in and out of love, their affection moving like the tides. Javier Bardem plays a Catholic priest who is tangentially related to the Ben-Olga drama. He is having a deep crisis of faith. He serves the poor and the broken, but inside, he is poor in spirit. God is so silent and far away. He longs for God, and plods on dutifully through life, broken and in pain.
The film is about Love, and God. I commend to you Damon Linker’s essay on it, and how film critics missed the deeply Christian elements of the narrative. I agree with everything Damon says — even his view that To The Wonder is inferior to The Tree Of Life — and won’t repeat it here. But I will quote this from Damon:
Ultimately, for Malick, the experience of falling in love grants us a glimpse of the divine — of a “Love that loves us” (as Marina twice describes it in voiceover, once at the beginning and again at the end of film). Early in the movie, Neil and Marina feel their love intertwine with the sacred when they pay a visit to the stunning church on the island of Mont Saint-Michel off the northwest coast of France, where the lovers (in Marina’s words) “climbed the steps to the wonder.” (The island and church, nicknamed “the wonder” [le merveille], gives the film its title.)
But love is not only rapture. In Malick’s Christian view, it also calls on us to sacrifice, to give ourselves over fully to the one we love. Once Marina moves to Oklahoma with Neil, a new character (a priest named Father Quintana, movingly played by Javier Bardem) expresses these sentiments in voiceovers and homilies from the pulpit of his church. Paraphrasing Ephesians 5:25, Father Quintana declares that “a husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church and give his life for her.” It is in undertaking this sacrifice that we participate in “the divine presence, which sleeps in each man, in each woman.”
Marina is eager for such sacrifice, but Neil resists it, with Marina but also with Jane — both of whom long to have children with him. (Children haunt the film, promising a happiness and fulfillment, and demanding a commitment, that is never chosen.) Glancing longingly at other women, Neil prefers to remain aloof, forever keeping his options open, turning love (in Jane’s words) into “nothing: pleasure, lust,” instead of treating it as the divine “command” that Father Quintana says it is: “Love is not only a feeling. Love is a duty. You shall love… You feel your love has died? It is perhaps waiting to be transformed into something higher.”
In the rapturous opening montage, Neil (Affleck) and Marina (Kurylenko) are seen in their convertible, speeding happily down the highway that leads to the abbey in the distance. It’s a cold and wet day, so you may think, “Why do they have the top down?” It’s because they are bathed in the warmth of first love. Malick contrasts the early spring (I’m guessing) darkness of France as a way to highlight the light inside Neil and Marina.
Yet as Damon says, when they arrive in America, all the light around them conceals the growing darkness inside of them. This is in part a movie about light — light as a metaphor for divine Love. Inside Mont-Saint-Michel, the spectacular light inside the abbey church is framed by the darkness of the windows, which concentrates the light. Indeed, the Gothic churches of northern France, like the abbey, were a stunning architectural innovation that brought light flooding into the darkened sanctuaries of early medieval Europe. European peasants were not used to their indoor spaces being lit. The Gothic architects changed that, at least for the churches.
Anyway, in Oklahoma, Neil and Marina are often in front of windows, but there is light all around them, so the special blessing of light in the windows is hard to see. There is freedom in America; Neil and Marina are forever going out into the wide, directionless plain, but there is also a lack of direction. Malick makes the bland suburb look flush with light and color, but it all appears so transitory. You may notice that Neil and Marina do not furnish their house. It’s as if they were withholding themselves from commitment. Eventually, as Damon says, they split. Then they come back together. Then they split again. You are reminded of the tides that come and go so dramatically in the estuary surrounding Mont Saint Michel. The Mont, though, is a fixed point. Neil and Marina are carried along by the tides of their emotions because they lack a fixed point. They can only stay close to each other when they are in ecstasy, enchanted by the wonder of love. When the wonder fades, they fall apart. They have no anchor to hold them together when their passion fades.
The other dyad in the film is Bardem’s priest, and God. God has withdrawn from his perception. There’s a great short scene in which a wild-haired old black man who is cleaning church windows for Father Quintana asks him if he can perceive the Holy Spirit. The old man is a charismatic, filled with joy. He puts his hand to the window and says something like, “Feel that?” Father Quintana can’t; he remains shrouded in dignified gloom. But he pushes dutifully forward, and continues to visit the poor and the sick, even though he doesn’t know why he does it, except that he teaches that for Christians, love is not something you feel, but something you do, whether you feel it or not. Malick shoots Fr. Quintana’s scenes in cold darkness (versus the light and warmth of the Neil/Marina scenes) — again, the irony that in the darkness of Father Q’s sad, lonely life, the spiritual light shines through.
Malick seems to be saying that Love is hard, and that we can only really hold on to the wonder of first Love (and of the encounter with God) by maintaining our connection to other people, and through faith. We make our faith real by our actions, and by renewing those actions even when we don’t feel the ecstasy. It’s a mystery, but it’s true.
The final scene is absolutely arresting. I won’t give it away, but it’s an image of Marina running heedless into a new world scene, toward the light. And then, a blinding light strikes her from behind. The iconography Malick uses here tells us that the true light comes from the mysterious past, where Wonder has been captured in permanence. Upon that rock — Mont-Saint-Michel, and its confession of faith — is eternity and transcendence built. Only by fencing oneself in by commitment based in love and faith can we maintain our connection to the Wonder. In total freedom and newness is instability, and the death of love. It’s the unbearable lightness of being.
Only the roads that lead to a definite destination are the pathways to Love. The Divine Light can only truly be perceived when framed by the consecrated darkness.
Those are my initial thoughts. I welcome yours. I’ll write more on Light and God and the medievals later; I’m going to pick a friend up at the airport now.