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.