Can Terrence Malick's dream-like film grammar resonate when set in the modern world? The contemporary scenes from the otherwise mesmerizing Tree of Life, featuring a pensive Sean Penn stumbling listlessly through a soulless corporate expanse, suggested not. It's as if the enigmatic Texan's cinema needs a light dusting of nostalgia to make it palatable, like toast needs butter. And sections of his new film, the present day-set To the Wonder, add credence to this theory.
An alternative name for the film could have been Scenes from a Marriage, if Malick's increasingly radical narrative style traded in scenes. We follow shards of a rocky relationship with visuals taking the form of a lucid collage of askance glances and expressionistic camera twirls. Dialogue is used sparingly, replaced by ethereal voices whispered over a haunting orchestral soundtrack. Raven-haired free-spirit Marina (Olga Kurylenko) frolics on a train and around scenic French landmarks with her new American beau, Neil, who's lantern jawed, taciturn, and, distractingly, played by Ben Affleck. Initially it's bracing to see Malick's images in a new context. Early vignettes on a Normandy beach that turns gelatinous when trod on and a honey lit stroll by the banks of the Seine, where the couple are joined by Marina's 10-year-old daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), feel box fresh. Things get a little familiar, however, when Neil asks Marina and Tatiana to follow him across the Atlantic to his Midwest homestead.
Malick seems to be intentionally mirroring images from Tree of Life, as if Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt's curdled marriage in the film has echoed through the decades. Neil's hometown is reminiscent in many ways of its predecessor's 1950s Texas setting: the street are free of traffic and strewn with children at play; yards are wide and immaculate, with Marina and Tatiana fond of dancing on them barefoot; and, like all Malick films, it's perpetually magic hour, Emmanuel Lubezki again shooting the ecstatic images. But the soulless identikit house never feels like home to Marina; boxes of her belongings remain ominously unpacked. There's something sinister, too, about the suburb itself. It's still under construction and Neil is investigating the local streams for contamination and taking samples of residents' hair for testing. As the foundation of the town turns toxic, so does the couple's relationship.
This crumbling love affair is intriguingly interspersed by the downcast presence of Javier Bardem as a priest who appears to be having a crisis of faith. When he wanders around his dirt-poor parish, he looks like he'd rather be anywhere else. What can he say to these whippet-thin mothers who can barely feed their kids? "God shall provide"? There's nowhere for Bardem's priest to hide though. Shot from below at Malick's favorite camera angle, pointing to the heavens, he looms over his congregation like a guilt-ridden sphinx. These sections seem to act as ballast, steadying a film so lithe that it's in danger of floating off the screen.
To the Wonder is more intimate and less mythical than the director's previous work, but it's also trickier to engage with emotionally. Ever since Pauline Kael described Days of Heaven as "an empty Christmas tree," Malick has always had to dodge the charge that he's all style, little substance. For stretches of To the Wonder, I felt a similar sentiment—and it was a novel experience. I assumed for a while that it was I who was having the off day, but when a cacophony of pantomime boos echoed throughout the Sala Darsena auditorium, it became apparent that I wasn't the only one frustrated by the film's ethereal nature. I didn't join in the international choir of Statlers and Waldorfs though. This may be a feather-light doodle, but it's a ravishingly beautiful one by a great artist in second gear.
The Venice Film Festival runs from August 29—September 8.