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It’s only April, but it seems fair to assume that To The Wonder contains more frolicking than any movie that will be released this year. Actually, it’s not mere frolicking that dominates the latest visually rapturous work from Terrence Malick, the same filmmaker who entranced some moviegoers and maddened others with 2011’s The Tree of Life. It’s a very specific type of frolicking—-let’s call it froli-Flecking—-in which impossibly gorgeous women laugh with carefree abandon on the banks of the river Seine, dash through Midwest-suburban sunbeams, and gaze beatifically at herds of buffalo, all while in the handsome but largely silent presence of Ben Affleck.
When I say that at least 80 percent of this sure-to-be-polarizing film consists of scenes like the ones described above, that may not technically be true. But while you’re watching To The Wonder, it will feel true.
The plot is as gauzy as the curtains in which Affleck and Ukrainian actress Olga Kurylenko wrap themselves after a bount of intensely sensual cheekbone-caressing. But basically, it’s this: Neil (Affleck), his French girlfriend Marina (Kurylenko) and Marina’s daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) relocate from Paris to Oklahoma and attempt to become a family, living a happy life set against flat horizons. This works for a while, until it doesn’t. Neil and Marina split up, seek companionship in others—-that’s where the shimmery scenes involving Affleck, Rachel MacAdams, and buffalo enter the picture—-and attempt reconciliation, determined to translate their initial passion into something permanent. Meanwhile, a priest played by Javier Bardem wanders in and out of the story, reminding us via voiceover narration and his lonely gaze how hard it is to surrender one’s self to another, be it a lover or Jesus Christ.
To watch this movie is to be at constant war with yourself. In your more practical, snarky moments, you will question whether you are seeing an actual film or a commercial for some perfume that’s never revealed. You will strongly consider dumping the entire contents of your jumbo-sized Coke Zero over your head if you have to absorb one more pretentious image of Kuryenko raising her skinny arms skyward or skipping joyously through a Food Mart. And if anyone dares to exit the theater while describing To The Wonder as a visual tone poem, you will vow to punch that person in the face and feel absolutely zero regret afterwards.
But then, another side—-the one that yearns to abandon cynicism and embrace artististry—-will tell the snarkier you to just shut the hell up for a minute. You will start to admire the way the dappled sunlight transforms otherwise banal sights—-backyards jungle gyms, Sonic drive-throughs—-into places of awe. You will become hypnotized by the way Kurylenko—-an otherwordly hybrid of Angelina Jolie, Marion Cotillard, and Fiona Apple—-repeatedly leaps and twirls. You will hear Bardem’s breathy words about finding “Christ behind me” and “Christ in me” and they will sound like a whispered prayer. You may even feel compelled to give yourself up to God—-God, in this case, being Terrence Malick but, given the Christian themes in the film, also actual God.
You might. Or you might decide this is nothing more than a bunch of pretty, pseudointellctual slop.
Just as the characters in To The Wonder discover, it’s up to you to decide which side of the psyche triumphs in that ongoing, internal struggle.