"Wonder" has always been the word with Terrence Malick.
He might be the most sought-after, high-budget art-house filmmaker on the planet, a director whose talent for cinematic poetry and freeform improvisation gives him virtually the pick of Hollywood's A-list litter. But for all his voice-over philosophizing, his movies are completely guileless. He makes simple films beautifully, with a childlike sense of wonder. Even if his films fail to leave you elated, you can't help but feel cleansed by their innocent purity.
A new Malick masterwork is always an event, but as the releases have grown more commonplace, so, too has the feeling that his movie world — so separate from others — has developed its own systematic clichés. There may be, it turns out, only so much inner-monologue questioning about love and nature from a barefoot, long-haired lass in the sun-lit grass that we can take.
Such has been the reception to Malick's latest, "To the Wonder," a film that more than any other of the director's, distills his distinctive approach. There's hardly any dialogue at all, just the story of a French-speaking Ukrainian single mother, Marina (Olga Kurylenko), and her up-and-down romance with Neil (Ben Affleck). He's a kind of sample-taking environmental scientist of polluted blue-collar areas who brings Marina and her 10-year-old daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), from vibrant, sundrenched Paris to his home in an austere suburban development in Oklahoma.
Dichotomy has always been the real narrative propellant for Malick (war and peace in "The Thin Red Line"; the disciplinarian father and graceful mother of "The Tree of Life") and that's true here. The particular events and ruptures in Neil and Marina's relationship aren't closely followed, only the familiar tidal swells of love and loneliness. During a separation, a local former flame (Rachel McAdams) also drifts in, forming an evanescent triangle.
What this is, then, is a straightforward, abstractly rendered rumination on love, mostly from Marina's perspective. "What is this love that loves us?" she wonders. The state of bliss she finds with Neil — on a train to Paris, on the shores of Mont Saint-Michel, on the plains of Oklahoma — is inevitably, mysteriously fleeting. She ponders, in French: "Where are we when we're there?" ''Why doesn't it last?"
The film creates other questions, too, none more than: Ben Affleck can speak French?? But the actor's character hardly talks at all, and he moves hulkingly through the film, mostly leaving the meditations to Marina.
Malick gives his actors wide berth to explore their characters, shaping his films largely in editing. (Performances by Rachel Weisz, Michael Sheen and others didn't make it into the final cut, a not unusual fate for members of a Malick cast.) But the performances in "To the Wonder" aren't quite up to the task. Affleck is sensitive but zombie-like. Kurylenko, a gorgeous former model who played a Bond girl in "Quantum of Solace," is a captivating, lithe presence but her playful improvising veers too close to precious (a danger for any Malick player). Perhaps their characters were too thinly scripted by Malick, if "scripted" is even a relevant word.
Whereas "The Tree of Life" put its characters in a cosmic, mythical context (oh, yes, there were dinosaurs), "To the Wonder" places its characters' deliberations on love in the spiritual realm. Javier Bardem plays a Catholic priest undergoing a crisis of faith. He meanders morosely among the town's poor and imprisoned in what feels like — compared to the lengthy, dreamy intimacy with the likes of Kurylenko, McAdams and Affleck — token slumming with less physically blessed humanity.
When the papal concave gets a look at the regal Bardem robed in vestments, they may wonder if perhaps they missed the boat. His priest is a tangential character with little connecting him to the couple, but his role is to, by association, bond their earthly affection with God's love. One wide-eyed bit character exclaims to him at a window: "I'm feeling not just the natural light. That's the spiritual light!"
Cinema is a cathedral for Malick, and in it, light is heavenly. Much of the film, with cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, was shot in the golden glow of "magic hour." You will seldom see a more majestically shot movie, one both impressionistic and detailed, sensual and grounded. Even if other elements of the film are lacking, the sheer inventiveness and variety of the contrasting images keeps you riveted.
"To the Wonder" isn't the finest Malick film. But if it's a failure, it's the best kind. It strives, in a superficial medium, to communicate something universal about our inner nature. It seeks beauty in the world and finds it everywhere, from the shores of Normandy to the grocery store aisles of Oklahoma.
It may be easy to laugh at, but wherever the love that loves us is, it's in this movie.
"To the Wonder," a Magnolia Pictures release, is rated R for some sexuality and nudity. Running time: 113 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definition for R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.