“He’s asking if you want to come live in the United States.” As her mother explains to Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) what Neil (Ben Affleck) means to say, the trio is walking in a park in Paris, the light soft grey and the grass exquisite green. Just 10 years old, Tatiana is excited and frightened, but she’s also trusting, and so she runs to embrace the man whom her mother, Marina (Olga Kurylenko), has only just met. The camera swoops close, their faces flushed and their limbs entwined.
The scene comes early in To the Wonder, Terrence Malik’s new meditation on the vagaries of love and loss. Tatiana will end up being something of a casualty here, within the plot, as the adults prove unable to sort out their differences, and also within the film as such, as she’s sent off to live with an unseen father, such that her experience becomes an appendage to her mother’s, who will end up feeling very alone and not a little resentful too. Marina’s experience may be the most legible in the film, which works in the ways that Malick’s films like to work, by allusive light and mobile framing and many shots of stunning young women twirling in skirts. Marina serves as the subject of this last on several occasions, as does the other object of Neil’s affection, Jane (Rachel McAdams). Tatiana tends not to be in or see these scenes, which is just as well.
The plotty reason this is just as well is obvious, as Tatiana, photogenic like a model just like her mother, is yet too young to serve as a twirly object of this sort. But there’s another reason too, which is that she is, after all, 10, and smart and observant too, with practical concerns, and so you might imagine her to be less patient with such poetic imagery. And if the on-screen portrayal of the move to Oklahoma remains cryptic for both Tatiana and Marina, the child’s understanding of what must be an upheaval is especially slight. She walks a bit with Neil and her mom, they go to church, and she attends school, where a couple of kids show up in the frame with her. But how she adjusts to the change from an urban and likely French experience to the rural Midwest is pretty much left to your imagination.
In this, Tatiana’s story is both like and unlike that of the adults, including her mom and Neil, and his other girlfriend, Jane (Rachel McAdams), and his priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem). Each is afforded a bit of pondering time, and Father Quintera takes particular advantage of it, thinking through the promise and consequence of faith, how he must “run the risk of failure,” and also how to make sense of a world where faith is not apparently rewarded or even acknowledged. That he shares a moment of seeming joy with a black worker at the church, cleaning the stained glass windows, is at once distressing and predictable: the worker offers an authentic, earnest, and frankly stereotypical advice, to give himself over to a vitalizing spirit. Father Quintera smiles and, in the next scene, resumes cogitating.
You might imagine that Father Quintera’s questions are of a piece with Neil’s. Both men work with a community, namely, Bartlesville, a portion of whose population is facing evacuation because of already-starting tar-sands crude seepage. Neil takes soil readings and speaks with people who have no obvious place to go, Father Quintera goes door to door to counsel drug addicts and single moms, and also speaks with Marina, fretting that her life and relationship have not turned out as she hoped. Both men may be contemplating big questions, say, the meaning of love (spiritual and romantic, all-consuming and self-defining), though Neil is considerably less articulate.
The women, meanwhile, are left to twirl. As much as Marina, feeling displaced, reflects on Neil’s increasing withdrawal, she can’t know whether it’s because his job is worrying him or he feels crowded by the two new people in his sparsely decorated home. And as he’s distracted by Jane, with whom he rekindles a former romance, or maybe he just remembers it. As Marina agonizes on her own, she can’t know that her blue featherweight Victoria’s Secret tops only exacerbate her difference from Jane, who wears brighter, more primary colors, red and yellow skirts and boots too, as she works with horses, on a ranch, which means she twirls in muddy paddocks.
It’s not always clear whether these differences are real, or Neil perceives them, or whether there is a difference between these ideas, in this film. And it’s here that you might think Tatiana’s perspective might be helpful. She sees the changing dynamic between her mother and Nail, she walks with them and doesn’t quite believe his scientific explanation of the pinkish light in the sky, a sliver of his work life sliding into his personal one. She’s not in the cold grey kitchen when Marina tells Neil that her visa has expired, or in the bedroom as Marina packs. She writes words onto Neil’s forehead, practicing her English in silence, but Tatiana misses the decisions that shape her life, and you miss her reactions, save for once, when she informs Neil that she no longer likes him.
Because To the Wonder eschews chronology and, for the most part, dialogue, you can’t know when such sublime or difficult moments occur, or how they have effects, exactly. And you want very much to appreciate the film’s remarkable understanding of how movies can work as such, its investment in light and motion, in bodies and gestures and land and sky.
All of these details are brilliant here, providing the sorts of impressions a child like Tatiana might appreciate. Still, after that early thrill in Paris, it’s hard to know what she wants, how she perceives, and how she affects the adults who seem mostly to ignore her. Tatiana doesn’t hear the poetic and sometimes silly slashes of voiceover (“I open my eyes, I melt,” “Love makes us one, two, one,” “What is this love that loves us?” “A husband does not find his wife lovely. He makes her lovely”). She might observe what’s in front of her, even un-enhanced by Emmanuel Lubezki’s superb cinematography. And she might engage in the so meaningful on-screen movement, running and embracing. And she might not.