To the Wonder: Histoire(s) de la peinture

[It is useless to read the following before my review of The Tree of Life, The Imaginary Family of Terrence Malick.]

« Rien ne me réjouis tant que le soleil d’automne... Soleil noir ! » (“Nothing rejoyces so much as the autumn sun... Black sun !”, Belle de Jour)
For the first time there is almost no fire. Just a candle in Marina’s hands. But only the inattentive missed her opening statement: « Je tombe dans la flame » (“I fall into the flame”). The whole film is burning in the architect’s candle.
Well, there is the sun, that great ball of fire, the source of light. Entering the church, the house, spreading over the bed, over Neil and Marina, capturing her into the wonder in the end.
« Il s’agit d’une cérémonie religieuse, en quelque sorte... Très émouvante... A laquelle je tiens beaucoup. » (“It is a religious ceremony, in a way... Very touching... Very dear to me.”, Belle de Jour) The Christ is a reference to The Tree of Life and to Buñuel and Sade (see here). This is the temple of the orgies, the movie theater where we seat. It is rather empty this time. Maybe the director suspected that To the Wonder would have a discrete and generally unenthusiastic reception.
Yes, the sun is once more central: the sun itself (and its light), the eagle (that stares at it), Versailles (the palace of the sun king/“malick”). And, yes, the analogies with Bataille and Sade continue in To the Wonder (might be a good idea to have a look in the past posts on this). The lines of the film are a montage of appropriations from diverse literary sources, notably philosophical and religious. In line with The Tree of Life, the parody continuous, in a Catholic tone with Marina and Quintana, in a Protestant one with Neil and Jane (see Richard Brody’s review about this).

The final acknowledgement of Snow White, João César Monteiro's 2000 almost entirely black film is left to one of his essential moral references: "My manner of thinking, so you say, cannot be approved. Do you suppose I care? A poor fool indeed is he who adopts a manner of thinking to suit other people!" (« Ma façon de penser, dites-vous, ne peut être approuvée. Et que m’importe ? Bien fou est celui qui adopte une façon de penser pour les autres ! », D.A.F. de Sade, from a letter to his wife, 1783) I do not take for unimportant the fact that To the Wonder begins with a black screen and a voice saying «Tu m'as sorti des ténèbres.» ("You got me out of the darkness.") If « Tu m'as ramassé du sol» ("You gathered me up from earth.") seems a probable allusion to the broken statue of The Blood of a Poet, Monteiro might also hover over this beginning. His decision for a black (or dark grey) screen must be considered in several ways. One is enucleation, a theme dear to Bataille (see his comments on Buñuel's Un chien andalou). That would bring Oedipus to the conversation. And cinema as mommyfication (mummification d'après Norman Bates).
The warm of the light.
Remember the conversation between the priest and the man in the gothic revival church echoing Mont Saint-Michel’s? Could you feel the “power”? His comment on the “spiritual light” deserves attention. We went back to the Middle Ages for a brief moment in order to consider the presence of the abbey and the tapestries in this film (Home Sweet Home and To the Wonder: An Overview). Light, sunlight in particular, plays a major role in architecture. In the West, arguably, it was never so central like in the Gothic world (G. Duby, Saint Bernard et l’art cistercien, my translation, in French below):
I love because I love, I love that I may love. Love is a great thing so long as it continually returns to its fountainhead, flows back to its source, always drawing from there the water which constantly replenished it” [Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons on the Canticle of Canticles, 83]
“Then, through the monastery’s most sacred space, the rays fuse, amorous arrows, direct emanations of God. “To anyone approaching it gives itself, regenerating beings; it moves constantly and moves itself by moving the others; its domain spreads everywhere and nowhere allows to be confined. […] It increases gradually, showing its greatness in all matter that welcomes it. It is active, powerful, invisible and present everywhere.” [De coelesti hierarchia, XV, II; from Duby] To these words of Dionysius the Areopagite respond those of Bernard of Clairvaux, who sees Christ as a sun and chooses bright his most penetrating metaphors: “As the air, radiant with sun-beams, seems not so much to be illuminated but light itself, so in the saints all human affections should get to melt, liquefy to flow entirely into God’s will.” [De diligendo Deo, X; from Duby] Indeed, in the projections of light filtered through the wall, the encounter takes place, those nuptials between the soul and God to which all monastic life is preparation, and that appeals to this getting out of oneself, to this “excess” that St. Bernard, before Georges Bataille, celebrated. The function of light is the same in the Cistercian church and courtly song: it is the intangible ladder of love. Within that unity perfect in the hours of chant, in this school of Christ in which the art of love [ars amoris] is taught – “art of arts” says William of Saint-Thierry, who, in his treatise On the Nature and Dignity of Love, wanted to be its sacred singer – each one of the monks, out of the darkness of the dormitory, out of the cloister where the light of the sky spreads with no mystery whatsoever, becomes, when he enters in the near forest like shadow of the church, a game of love hunting. Unexpected arrows aim at him. If the cloister is a kind of net where the movements of the stars are captured, the monks are those who, in that other trap which is the church, are the aim of the assaults of divine love, of these attacks renewed every dawn, when “the light returns in the footsteps of the night.” Willing victims, flank exposed to the blow which will strike them down, they who think in themselves as good watchmen of the Canticle. They are not all touched at the same time, but more or less quickly all will climb the steps of the pyre that will consume them in ecstasy. The church where light becomes burning flame, bare as a barn, almost without doors but open in its heights to the upsurges of charity [love], seems like the altar of a collective sacrifice where a group of men who fatigue, fasting and the sun of harvest have already burned out, offer themselves, from dawn to dusk, to this devoration by the fire that, for them, would be without end.”

The stair of love, the stair of Vertigo. « Pourquoi on redescend ? » (“Why do we come back down?”) The stairs are such a rich theme that I might write a post about them one day.

(« J’aime parce que j’aime, j’aime pour aimer. Quelle grande chose que l’amour, si du moins il remonte à son principe, s’il retourne à son origine, s’il reflue vers sa source pour y puiser un continuel jaillissement ! » [Homélie sur le Cantique, 83, 4-6]
« À travers l'espace le plus sacré du monastère, fusent alors les rayons, ces flèches amoureuses, émanations directes de Dieu. « Il fait don de soi à quiconque s'approche, régénérant les êtres ; il se meut sans cesse et se meut lui-même en mouvant les autres ; son domaine s'épand partout et nulle part il ne se laisse enfermer. […] Il s'accroît insensiblement, manifestant sa grandeur en toute matière qui l'accueille. Il est actif, puissant, partout invisible et présent. » [De coelesti hierarchia, XV, II] A ces paroles de Denys l'Aréopagite, répondent celles de Bernard de Clairvaux, qui voit le Christ comme un soleil et qui choisit, lumineuses, ses plus pénétrantes métaphores : « De même que l'air inondé de lumière solaire paraît se transformer en cette clarté lumineuse, à tel point qu'il ne semble plus être illuminé mais lumière, de même tout appétit humain doit en arriver chez les saints à se fondre, à se liquéfier pour couler tout entier dans la volonté de Dieu. » [De diligendo Deo, X] Dans les projections de la lumière filtrées par la muraille la rencontre s’accomplit en effet, ces épousailles entre l’âme et Dieu à quoi toute l’existence monastique est préparation, et qui appelent à cette sortie de soit-même, à cet « excès » que saint Bernard, avant Georges Bataille, a célébré. La function de la lumière est la même dans l’église cistercienne et dans la chanson courtoise : c’est l’impalpable échelle de l’amour. Au sein de l'unité devenue parfaite aux heures de psalmodie, dans cette école du Christ où ce qui s'enseigne est l'art d'aimer — « art des arts » dit Guillaume de Saint-Thierry lequel, dans son traité De la nature et de la dignité de l'amour, voulut s'en faire le chansonnier sacré — chacun des moines, sorti de l'obscurité du dortoir, sorti du cloître où la lumière du ciel se répand sans aucun mystère, devient, lorsqu'il pénètre dans la pénombre presque forestière de l'église, comme le gibier d'une chasse amoureuse. Des traits imprévus le visent. Si le cloître est une sorte de filet où les mouvements des astres sont capturés, ce sont les moines qui, dans cet autre piège qu'est l'église, servent de but aux assauts de l'amour divin, à ces assauts qui se renouvellent à chaque aurore, lorsque « la lumière revient dans les pas de la nuit ». Des victimes consentantes, le flanc prêté au coup qui les terrassera, eux qui se tiennent pour les bons veilleurs du Cantique. Tous ne sont pas touchés aussitôt, mais tous plus ou moins vite gravissent les degrés de ce bûcher qui les consumera dans l'extase. L'église où la lumière devient brûlure, nue comme une grange, presque sans porte, mais ouverte dans ses hauteurs aux déferlements de la charité, apparaît ainsi comme l'autel d'un sacrifice collectif où des hommes que la fatigue, les jeûnes, le soleil des moissons ont déjà calcinés, s'offrent ensemble, de l'aube au crépuscule, à cette dévoration par le feu qui pour eux ne prendra jamais fin. ») 

Marina embracing a vertiginous fall in the blue of the sky: Hitchcock + Antonioni with a little taste of Bataille.


The architectural proposals of the Middle Ages were diverse and Quintana’s church is not an example of the values of the first Cistercian temples, about which Duby writes about. Even so, this excerpt is clarifying of the cultural references of Malick’s parodic imagery. The man comes for sure from some film and his comment is meta-cinematic, but this doesn’t exclude the analogy between the inner experience of “natural” sunlight and Malick’s experience of his sick sun (or his rhetoric about it).
Tenemos sed.”
« Vous appelez ça de l’inspiration, mais j’appellerai plutôt ça de l’évacuation. » (You call this inspiration, but I would rather call it evacuation, Le bassin de John Wayne)
Marina decorates Neil’s home with reproductions of paintings. A Godardian trademark. She seems to like Rembrandt and he is one of Godard’s favorites too. Our attention is particularly drawn to A Woman Bathing. That’s the painting in her hands when she reconciles with Neil at the film’s climax, while Quintana prays.
A painting reproduced in Histoire(s) du cinéma (2a Seul le cinema, ca. minute 9).

Just before Malick shows Marina’s scissors cutting the book, a reference to Pierrot’s most famous shot: Karina pushing a pair of scissors in front of the camera. An elaborate explanation for the allusion is unnecessary. The Hitchcockian joke (already present in Karina’s killings) is not the fundamental, but the association with montage (by the way, remember how the knife stabs rhyme with the editing acceleration in Psycho’s shower scene) and the aggression to our eyes.

One of the best trainings for reading Malick’s films is watching Godard’s Histoire(s). In a way they are simpler: the references are generally explicit. In a way they are more demanding: the possibilities of interpretation are much wider. I find particularly useful the acquaintance with Godard’s metaphoric processes using others’ work. Malick does very much the same, although phantomatically, so to speak. He is also mounting his memories of the cinema, mounting them in a spiral where they gain certain meanings and effects, but all by allusions, almost never directly. Speaking of montage it would be unforgiving not to mention Eisenstein, who related the dismembering of the sacrificial body with its genesis: “Where does this method of dismembering and recomposing come from? […] Where does it have its roots? […] This term [dismembering, raschlenenye] reflects, evidently, a more ancient situation, really connected with the unity of limbs and with a dismembering which is the prelude to a new unity, under the sign of another, superior quality […] We think of Dionysus. The myths and mysteries of Dionysus. Dionysus who is torn apart, and his members newly assembled into a transfigured Dionysus.” (The Birth of Montage: Dionysus) Malick’s “kit” is close to this: to dismember the memory of cinema and to recompose it in ecstasy in order to achieve transformation.

This said, having in mind that in Malick “everything is cinema”, we can understand what A Woman Bathing is doing around here. Well, a small histoire might help:
“There is a fine and admired picture in the National Gallery of a woman standing in a pool and holding up her smock, with parted legs, in an attitude which has always seemed to me undoubtedly to represent the act of urination. In recent years I have learnt on good authority that so it really came from the artist’s hands, but that at some later date the falling stream was painted out. I should like to think that the indignation I feel at this sacrilegious distortion of a supreme artist's work will some day be generally shared.” (Havelock Ellis)
Ellis’ theories about The National Gallery’s Rembrandt are a well-known joke. And they are indeed useful to understand what Malick wants with this. Godard is more than Godard. He is an open door to the history of cinema. In his Histoire(s) du cinéma he mounted the entire history of the art. And there you will find Malick’s Rembrandt, what is to say the fountain of infinite joys, the fountain of the river of life.
« Viens, garce, luit dit-il, c'est à la source même que je veux puiser. » (Les cent vingt journées de Sodome)
Father Quintana prays: “Sedientos. Tenemos sed.” (“Thirsty. We thirst.”) He continues: “Inunda nuestras almas con tu espíritu di vida tan completamente que nuestras vidas sólo podrán ser un deflexo de la tuya. Brilla a través de nosotros. Ensénanos como buscarte. Estamos hechos para verte.” (“Flood our souls with your spirit and life so completely that our lives may only be a reflection of yours. Shine through us. Show us how to seek you. We were made to see you.”)

The camera of Viridiana (one of its rare associations to the feminine sex) and Salò, Circle of Shit (Histoire(s) du cinema, 1b Une histoire seule, ca. minute 29; 2a Seul le cinema, ca. minute 5). “Il limite dell’amore è quello di avere sempre bisogno di un complice. Questo suo amico sapeva, però, che la raffinatezza del libertinaggio è quella di essere al tempo stesso carnefice e vittima.” (“The limit of love is that of requiring always an accomplice. However, your friend knew that the refinement of libertinism is that of one being the same time executioner and victim”, Salò) Another allusion to the identification of the sacrifier and the sacrifice, a Christic theme par excellence. In truth we could say: de la merveille à la merde il n'y a qu'un pas: ce qui sépare la grâce de la nature. A great deal could be written about this stinky subject but shit/piss – artist’s or not – isn’t really my cup of tea. Put it like this: Malick is someone who has incorporated (eaten) the entire history of cinema in order to produce (to evacuate) the glorious merveille he wants to consume. (Do you think that Jack’s cake came from Pasolini’s mansion?)

Pasolini, the author of the alluded adaptation of Sade, is no ordinary artist. Pasolini is the artist della vita. Of life, i.e., turbulent, marginal, violent, life. Both in his creations and outside them. If there is someone whose art seems at great extent inseparable from his life, that person is Pasolini, so much more after his death.
The Decameron: Pasolini as the fresco painter, an obvious example of a character representing the maker of the film (see also Pasolini as Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales).
No one important in cinema had, as far as I can remember, such a violent death. The incident is wrapped in an interminable polemic. But whatever were the motivations, the number and identity of the perpetrator(s) this is certain: he was beaten savagely to death.
This death is generally seen as a conclusion of a life. Not the necessary conclusion but far from unexpected. Soon it grew not only the image of the poète maudit exploring una vita violenta to the end, but the tempting Christ-like image (the two don’t exclude themselves in such a man, of course). The degree of animosity between Pasolini and the Italian society was indeed at its peak after Salò. Following the solar dream of the Trilogia della vita, renegaded by the director, came the degrading reality of Salò, where he expressed all his pessimism about the evolution of contemporaneity.
What has Malick to do, in all his love for illusion, in all is contempt for humanity, with a lover of the real? Already it was said that illusion is, in the end, his way, his door to the real. That is its erotic power.

Between mother’s breast and sacrifice.
 ... o croce?

Now know this: the real you see it in the photos of Pasolini’s dead body. That final kiss of life that Malick’s work longs for.

 Nice solution to preserve this merveille.
To be continued.


To the Wonder: Ballet mécanique?

[It is useless to read the following before my review of The Tree of LifeThe Imaginary Family of Terrence Malick.]
“I am myself a machine” (The General Line)
To the Wonder films mechanisms with notorious insistence. The generator, amusement parks’ diversions, the pumpjack, playground equipments, the train. From time to time it can be felt something like a big machine at work, a machine whose mechanism these elements integrate, the machine condensing the thousand allusions gathered by its creator (see post on allusions). This complex machine produces energy, joy, vertigo. It is an erotic machine. The idea goes back to Days of Heaven... well, as a “time machine”, it seems to begin in Badlands, as we have seen.
 Raccord between the lovers movement and the amusement ride. And if Marina jumping in her bed was an allusion to the ballet of Entr'acte? “Cinema as a roller-coaster ride”?


It is a theme close to another metaphor which goes back to Days of Heaven too: the factory. It should be clear by now that this slightly overheated factory (of dreams) is in fact the very film, that long six part still growing vertiginous project. To go deep into this subject I would have to study Days of Heaven, a film I might have been underestimating. This post is nothing more than a first look at it.

It takes time to fully taste Malick’s perverse humor. All the little jokes, the second and third degree allusions he buried along his vast filmic kingdom. Like the quotation of Fernand Léger’s Ballet mécanique in the The Thin Red Line. It is amazing that this ostensibly provocative allusion was ignored (although detected). After all, in a film musing about Nature and one big souls, would not be a little strange quoting a masterpiece of the fascination of the avant-garde for the mechanized modernity?

For those less acquainted with these subjects, the machine was one of the favorite topics of the avant-garde. One of the particularities of the machine in face of Art (classically understood) is its utility. It has a function and it accomplishes it with precision. “Everything is directed toward utility with the utmost possible rigor.” (Léger) These films are art for the artist’s sake, for his vertigo and sacrifice. Their only measure of value is efficacy towards this. A film is a machine for burning, would say our architect.

“Cinema, it is the age of the machine, Theatre, it is the age of the horse.” (Léger) Cinema is itself a machine. The transformative power of this machine, this mechanical art, was invested with all kind of revolutionary aspirations by the avant-garde. But, as our friend said, Kit is more like an “Eisenhower conservative”, so I would keep the revolution far from this. Or just give it a psychopathic twist: “people of the cinema, unite…against the world!”
Back to Léger. He reveals a synthesis of the symbiotic relationship between man and machine that Ballet mécanique creates, associating at a precise rhythm fragmentary and dynamic visions of machineric movement with the movement of human bodies: cinema’s greatest myth, Charlie Chaplin. The cubist tramp as a living machine. “Each inanimate object becomes a living thing for him, each human person a dummy whose starting-handle must be found.” (Aragon, 1918)
Has this something to do with this? Too extravagant, even for Malick?
Léger’s film transpires the eroticization of the machine too, it is a way of singing its vitality, its “life”. It has the force of a sexual movement. And we might say that Malick working with Holly is like a mechanic working harmoniously with his machine, nurturing it and maintaining it, fusing with his love object in an erotic dance.

I could be shredded to death by an engine
And feel a woman’s sweet surrender when possessed.
Toss me into the furnaces!
Throw me under passing trains!
Thrash me aboard ships!
Masochism through machines!
Some modern sort of sadism, and I, and the hubbub!

(Pessoa, Triumphal Ode, 1914)

Ballet mécanique. Below, the camera filming itself in a swinging pendulum (convex mirror, see Home Sweet Home on this). The cinematic eye caught in the mechanics of its own lusty agitation.

But, of course, we have to strip this machine of any emancipatory pretension, of any positive value. It is true: the machine has a sinister side. Torturing, destructive, obsessive, absurd. The rational can quickly fall into the irrational, to the breaking point of madness. And it is also a mechanism of control. It can build the most perfect prisons. All this is unsurpassably explored in Chaplin’s Modern Times. If you need help to get Malick’s play with the metaphor of the machine, imagine he was a Chaplin swallowed by the great machine of cinema, some Moloch demanding to sacrifice all reason, law and sense.

The woman-machine, the great prostitute inflating with lust the eyes of Metropolis.  

“How’d you get along so long without a woman?” (Days of Heaven, script)

An analogy between Malick’s project and Duchamp’s most famous work, La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even), seems promising.
The Bride with her halo is on top. The Bachelors (“La Machine Célibataire”, The Bachelor Machine) are the nine “malic molds” bellow. Without contact with the Bride, the Bachelors have to grind the chocolate themselves (masturbate). The “oculist witnesses” (extreme lower right) personify the viewer. Search for the differences: “I did not really love the machine. It was better to do it to machines than to people, or doing it to me.” (Marcel Duchamp)
Opening Janis Mink’s divulgation book on Marcel Duchamp (Taschen) you will find simply explained a possibility to understand the “même” ending the title of the Large Glass. It might be more illuminating of Malick than Duchamp... I can’t resist bringing it to this discussion.
Duchamp loved phonetic games (Rrose Sélavy, etc.) and so we might be encouraged to take it as “m'aime”, (the bride) “loves me”. Always translated as the adverb “even”, says Mink, understood as an adjective:

“[…] it could mean "the same", such as "C’est la même chose" (that’s the same thing), "C’est moi-même" (it’s me), or “quand plusieurs verbes ont un méme sujet” (when several verbs have the same subject). In any case, it does seem possible that Duchamp hints the bride and the bachelors could be diverging facets of the single person who invented them.”

 “Moi en toi. Toi en moi.” (“Me in you. You in me.”) The adventures of Terrence Malick with Holly (five fingers).

Whatever Duchamp was trying to hint or to confuse is of no importance here. As the intentions of the filmmakers alluded in Malick’s films are, at great extent, irrelevant to understand his work. Just imagine The Bride was done by Malick and Mink is describing it: “The Large Glass has been called a love machine, but it is actually a machine of suffering. […] The bachelors remain below, left only with the possibility of churning, agonized masturbation.” Despite of all, I think this agonizing aspect of Malick’s work is indeed more palpable in To the Wonder. The whole thing sounds forced, something like a painful insistence on playing a game that will never be the same thing again.

Is Tatiana insisting so much on the cleanness of the supermarket because of Stepford Wives (1975). This film is a rather funny exploration of the themes of the double and the doll.

To be continued.


To the Wonder: An Overview

[It is useless to read the following before my review of The Tree of LifeThe Imaginary Family of Terrence Malick.]

L’ennui mortel de la merveille.

« Oh! là là! que d'amours splendides j'ai rêvées! » (“Oh! My! My! What splendid loves I dreamt!”, Tatiana, Rimbaud, Ma bohème)
Immediately after finishing The Tree of Life Malick started this film and currently prepares three more. Strange. The expectable would be to stop, this is, to wait. But the truth is that while working in his demented tree he was whispering to Holly’s hear: “What are you going to do after the orgy?”

To the Wonder and L'eclisse. Might be more than an allusion to Antonioni, but considering his importance in the entire movie (saw the lamp in the USA, alluding to the same masterpiece?) at least that seems certain.

Who missed the title might have thought this film was called “Autumn leafs.” They are found everywhere, even in Antonioni’s gutter. A presence by no means accidental. As an allusion to Belle de jour it will be considered in another post. But we can start by simple thoughts: a symbol of transition. If that was the idea they convince me more like a mark of decay. This film is the proof that the Tree is not sempervirens. To the Wonder is the story of a prayer with little chances to be heard.
It does not renew Malick’s processes, metaphors or jokes. But that is not the most important. Strange that the author of such an experiment wouldn’t understand that all its strength, all its violence came from having a direction: The Tree of Life. The time machine won’t take him back to an earlier stage. Here there is no real transgression (movement from one place to another). No eroticism. Now that he got to the shore of eternity I doubt he can give himself more than lesser dirty jokes. There is certainly evil in To the Wonder, but a more vulgar, “profane” one. Malick can get just a little more repulsive as a person by using amateurs to build his film, for example, but that is all he can do. Let’s wait for what comes next to confirm it. If he doesn’t watch out this is going to be more about Baudrillard than Bataille, if you known what I mean.
To keep with one of Malick’s metaphors – richness, wealth – there is a kind of nouveau riche style in To the Wonder. He is now a “rich man” but a very brute one (I mean this in the context of nature), happy with his own achievement, consuming his own mer…veille to the nausea. If the orchids were supposed to have the perfume of corruption (The Big Sleep), they have failed. This is simply boring. I just can’t believe someone, even someone as deranged as this director, could find this fulfilling. When Malick was poor his dreams were much stronger. The lack, the simplicity of means made them so more intense. Compare it with Badlands: « Il y a un truc qui manque.» (“Something is missing”, Tatiana) To say the least.
Neil seems to be exploring the Zone, Tarkovskyland. This time I doubt his wishes were granted.
For practical reasons we will ignore what is been said above about this film and we will pretend it achieves its aims. The utility of these lines is the clarification of Malick’s project, the rest is secondary.
Resume. It is Malick’s most banal story. At the level of the events we are between marriages and divorces. There is the sad banality of poverty, every day’s life. No killings, no dramatic deaths, no arson.
The sequence is of little importance. Neil and Marina (pretty European brunette) are in love and wander around Paris and Mont Saint-Michel. They go to America with Marina’s daughter. Their life is bittersweet and instable. Get together. Separate. Get together again. Treason. Reconciliation. Bye, bye, I will keep your name. Marina disappears in a “long corridor” (towards the light). She is captured into the wonder in the end, as part of her creator’s home. In the middle of this there is a love affair with a blonde and an anguished Spanish speaking priest delivering regular sermons and interior ruminations to the audience.
These posts will focus in a reduced number of key elements. The idea of extracting everything from this puzzle of allusions in one review would be insane, two years walking around the way of nature tell me that. It will all become clearer with time, hurry only leads to unnecessary mistakes. Some general coordinates about Marina follow.
The train: the voyage continues.

The filmmaker with his muse in a very special kind of session. “A foreigner speaking French is lovely.” (The Little Soldier)

We never leave the train where Neil and Marina play. Again, a matryoshka doll movie. Who left the room right in the end of the credits knows that the last sound heard is the sound of a train, a train (the TGV, the subway) insinuating itself now and then. This train transforms itself into the road or the river during Malick’s work. It is one of the used and abused metaphors populating To the Wonder.

The Tree of Life and To the Wonder.

The river of life, RL, seems also to be personified again in a baby, the one feeding the gooses (the audience). In the end, Neil is in a new house with his kids. A fake river decorates the garden, creating a mise en abyme of the same type of the architect’s home.
Indeed, the processes of Malick’s allusionism don’t change in To the Wonder. The game kept its rules. One, is to join allusions to different films in one image or scene when possible. Other, to collect images (or pieces of dialogue, etc.) that function as a means to confirm the allusionistic puzzle.

The film begins with a little play between Neil’s hand and Marina’s mouth. I would suggest that we find here a three in one allusion to Buñuel (who is also alluded by the plays with Marina’s boot, Diary of a Chambermaid; and her eye), Cocteau and Léger. There is also Antonioni in the train. And Godard, of course (the use of saturated video images opening the film seems a kind of allusion to Godard’s latter work). And more…

The Blood of a Poet (saw the lamp in Paris?) and Ballet mécanique. We will talk about this latter.

L'age d'or: Buñuel's girl has a dangerous mouth, Neil must that care.

So Marina – from the sea, means the name – is the daughter of many fathers, all European, apparently. Possibly, all of them get an allusion in that train, or at least in the Paris sequence.


« Amour qui nous aime, merci. » (Love that love us, thank you) This film is a praise of love: to the wonder. Éloge de l’amour, we could call it. Or, even better, Louange de l’amour. All love stories tell us about love, but this film finds its place with those which deliver a more explicit and articulated rhetoric about it.
Malick is always playing with himself. Who is the “nous” (us) and who is the “amour” (love) of Marina’s words? Understand the first as the “creatures” and the second as the “creator” (or creative force). I don’t remember an example of a character thanking his creator, but I am sure there is one. Cases where they discuss their fathers to praise or insult them are not rare.

You understood these suffocation games were an allusion to The Little Soldier and Pierrot, right? I suppose you also know they are part of some rather dangerous erotic practices.
No matter how many allusions to Antonioni, Tarkovsky and other directors, Buñuel, Cocteau and Godard will be our guides through this movie. I was reminded of the last by the plane crossing the sky, although I am not sure if it is at all an allusion to Passion: work and love. The film of the tableaux vivants, living recreations of paintings of the masters. Passion, the film which originated a film about it (or about its script), Scénario du film Passion, where the director talks about and shows his work, his love at work, his work as love. In To the Wonder, Malick humorously chooses the metaphor of the environmental inspector. Love (of nature) and work married.


“Mon seul désir.”
Noticed it was: search for an equivalent to this film in the Bible, or simply its main source of inspiration, the answer is the Song of Songs. Apparently, this is a more lyrical, erotic film than the previous, with allegorical suggestions to Christ as the bridegroom and the Church as the bride (through Quintana; the bride is also, as an apocalyptic theme, important in The Tree of Life).

There are not many unicorns in the history of film, I guess. The tapestry had a discrete presence in Sleeping Beauty, but maybe this does not concern to Disney. Do you think Malle has something to do with this? There is the eagle in To the Wonder too... Something to think about. “Night of love...around us. Eyes, days, stars shines for all remembered... in one slow breath. Merged... in one slow breath. But... The day hailed away... with all his gleam. Mighty death. Magical. Magical death... threatening my life. How could my love die... How could the endlessly living perish? Yearning eternal blindness, where forever love and rapture await. Heart on heart. Mouth on mouth. All is illusion. Set us free of this world. Dream of fire endless promise. Our hearts wonder wish. As full death, men named it evermore, beautiful delusion. Sweet awaited desire. Never waking. Never fearing, nameless there. Each to each, belonging. With love alone, all life source.” (Black Moon) 
As you might have noticed, Marina seems fascinated by La dame à la Licorne: « De quoi rêve-t-elle ? A quel point elle est calme. Amoureuse. Pour toujours en paix. » (“What is she dreaming of? How calm she is. In love. Forever at peace.”) We see details of three of the tapestries: the one dedicated to sight, with the unicorn looking at the mirror; touch; the famous one with “Mon seul désir”. This choice seems particularly intentional and we should look carefully at it, like we did with Bomarzo’s monster. The choice of an allegory and in particular one of the senses has something of an aesthetic statement. Malick works in allegorical dimension (the nightgown episode is the supreme example) and marries as few lyricism and sensuality (see, for example, Frédéric Sabouraud for Traffic “Peut-on encore être lyrique ?”). If the particular choice of the allegory of sight needs no explanation (but don’t miss the unicorn’s fascination with its own image, narcissism), as for “Mon seul désir”, it could be a fine title to such an obsessive film, no? Whatever you think of this, good or bad, it is obsessive. And there is the sacrifice: the lady giving up her jewels for her only “désir”. Still worth mention: the erotic aura marries with the Marian imagery in this late medieval masterpiece, the Roman de la Rose with the hortus conclusus where Mary attracts the unicorn (Christ). As Malick even quoted Godard’s Je vous salut, Marie (see Home Sweet Home) through Marina’s body, this would be impossible not to mention through Grace, even if the big picture gets slightly kitsch. Let’s continue with these useful lines on Malick’s allusions to the hortus conclusus, the “enclosed garden”:

“... embedded within the notion of the hortus conclusus is both the idea of the female body as a site of enclosure and the “enclosed” spatial quality of the female social experience. This loaded image dates back to at least the Song of Songs, wherein the man effuses, “my sister, my spouse, is a garden enclosed, a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up” (4:14). Though, at this point in film, it is Marina’s voice we hear on the soundtrack, it is Neil—an American in France, smitten by this Parisian beauty—who is situating Marina squarely as the object of his desire, of his wondrous gaze: a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up, a captivating woman who moves ever as if dancing to some song audible only to her.” (“Terrence Malick, Theologian”)
The usual solipsistic stuff. The muse fascinated with her own condition in face of the artist. In Mont Saint Michel, the muse fascinated with the very film she personifies. Gets slightly dull, no?
But if the female body was indeed related to the garden in past films (explicitly in The Tree of Life) in this last one it is most eloquently associated with architecture, home. Indeed, it shows us an erotic experience of space (home) in one sequence, the one with Neil visiting the house under construction.

I would love everything…

The musical choice accompanying those slightly Friedrichesque walks around Mont Saint-Michel is Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead (which is one of the probable sources of Herrmann’s work for Citizen Kane, W. H. Rosar, “The Dies Irae in Citizen Kane”). As you might know, it was inspired in Arnold Böcklin’s work (one of its versions). This encounter in the ghostly scenario of Mont Saint-Michel of music pursuing images and images pursuing musical construction seems too intentional to be ignored. Voyages to and through the kingdom of the dead… The orphic nature of Neil’s character was already discussed in the context of an autobiographical interpretation of the film.

Malick following his Madelaine in the Old World. Orphism is a keyword for Vertigo.

Pondering Marina’s ever swirling presence, a review published in a blog mentioned the Nanissáanah, the Native American ‘ghost dance’, by which “the dancer would be transported to the afterworld” (Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, quoted in “The Ghost Dance”). Around here we are not going to spend a line speculating about the importance of Malick’s ex-wife to help us understand Marina. That is just the continuation of the game of false autobiographical allusions initiated with the previous film. Yes, « Tu m'as sorti des ténèbres. Tu m'as ramasser du sol. M'as ramené à la vie » (“You brought me out of the shadows. You lifted me from the ground. You brought me back to life”), is “a disarmingly direct response to the cinematic act of incantation itself, the first utterance of a summoned voice glad to have been (temporarily) raised from the otherworld” (ibidem), but this Eurydice never had corporeal existence. Like always, Marina is just a filmic apparition of those many reflections punctuating the long corridor of Malick’s cinema (the cinema he loves), continuing the building process of his celluloid coffin, his beloved home.

Not done with Rachmaninoff yet. I got a doubt about this. Why Neil tries to peep under Marina’s skirt in the train? A joke with Godard? With Viridiana? Neil lifting her skirt when they arrive to America is an allusion to Breathless, but maybe that rose seen after Marina’s deep breath has really something to do with Abraham’s Valley too (what you say? Cocteau [The Beauty and the Beast] +Welles+Oliveira?). It is Oliveira’s must famous shot. And that film – the film of the final espousal of the river and death – also starts and ends with the train (as the more recent Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl, visibly inspired in That Obscure Object of Desire). It ends with its sound, to be more precise.
How much cinema our friend has seen? Sorry if I get extravagant at times, but every mention to less know subjects, works or authors has a reason. It hopes to be a clue, a door to understand this director’s processes, symbolical ground, his project and inner world. It is not a name-dropping exercise. This said, even if it was totally strange to Malick’s intentions (and a shot of The Tree of Life makes it believe it wasn’t at all), it won’t be a diversion to remember that the Isle of the Dead (along with Wagner’s Tristan) is part of the essential soundtrack of the astonishing Day of Despair (1992). Malick lived in Paris more than a few years, one of the best places in the world to watch (really) good cinema. It is a place where he could have had contact with Oliveira’s work. He has so much to please him. That baroque sense of the spectacle, its obsessive (and absolutely unsurpassable) spectrality and specularity, the Buñuelian humor, the morbidity, the necrophiliac narratives (he did the best necrophiliac comedy ever, Past and Present), the mastery of voice-over, the intense dialogue with the romantic tradition, the meta-cinematic and reflexive nature of his cinema, the doomed loves. Here Oliveira would be just… along with his family, so to speak. He is one of Godard’s favorites (he gets a quotation in Histoire(s) du cinéma). And he even did a sequel to Belle de jour.
Day of Despair is one of his most depurated works. A film about the final years and suicide of Camilo Castelo Branco, author of Doomed Love, adapted in 1979 by Oliveira. It is filmed in the writer’s own house, as the actors themselves tell us in the presentation they do of their roles. In an elaborate game of mirrors, they will be in and out of the characters during the film, representing and representing representation, cinema’s power to give voice and image to those temporarily raised from the otherworld to show us how the love which inspired the novelist’s masterpiece adapted by Oliveira turned into frustration and how he finally decided to espouse death. His true love, in the best romantic fashion. Oliveira chose an excerpt very possibly alluded in Chastain’s desperation in The Tree of Life. A confession:

We will have to investigate this.

“If I didn’t love above all the quiet of the tomb, I would love those trees and the murmur of the stream where each afternoon I watch dead leaves gliding over the clear waters. I would love the humble presbytery which for 300 years has welcome into its rough stone bosom those peaceful, ignorant, happy generations of the blessed savages who have luminously loved and served their Creator. I would love everything… but much more I love death.”

Much more.
What is Vertigo but the story of a man in love with death? Romantic loves have no possible fulfillment in terrestrial existence. They can only be consummated in death: “[…] death seems to be the truth of love, just as love is the truth of death.” (Georges Bataille, Literature and Evil)

Alejandro's marriage with death ends Buñuel's Wuthering Heights.

In The Tree of Life, before the vision of the house on fire and the burned boy, we see the wind blowing through the window. Very surprised I would be if this was not an allusion – through Buñuel – to Wuthering Heights, “surely the most beautiful and most profoundly violent love story” (ibidem). The devastating wind of passion putting the land of cinema on fire. After all, what is Brontë’s story? “It is the revolt of Evil against Good.” (ibidem)

Is this nymph of Pont Alexandre III an allusion to the suicide of the poet wanting to escape the “mortal boredom of eternity” (« [L'] Ennui mortel de l'immortalité. », The Blood of a Poet)?

To be continued.