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.