"To the Wonder" (À la merveille) is an extraordinary film that must be taken in full on its own terms. It is tempting for those who know much (or even a little) about Malick to focus on some of his familiar techniques and devices, make comparisons with earlier films, and ponder what it is he is trying to say this time (especially coming after "The Tree of Life"). It also is tempting for all kinds of viewers to puzzle over the scarcity of dialogue and the paring of the scenes in the drama. Yes, this movie demands attention, of all kinds, and, of course, if one wants to study and critique it after multiple viewings, then by all means, do so. But I fear that those who might begin by holding the film at arm's length, puzzling, judging, or simply waiting for explanations, may end up missing the wonder it really is.
My advice, therefore, is take it all in, give yourself over to this film, and do not get distracted by what might ordinarily strike you as missing plot details. Drink in every bit of the screen shots you can, let the music wrap around you, and imprint the few words you see and hear on your forehead (not unlike what Tatinia does in the movie) so you'll remember them later.
I know that this is not necessarily how many will approach a film by a director like Malick. I probably would have viewed it differently myself if I had not stumbled upon it by accident, after having been somewhat disenchanted with "The Tree of Life." I just happened to find "To the Wonder" on cable PPV one day after returning from a trip to France, which just happened to include a day's drive to see Le Mont St. Michel ("La Merveille," as it is known in France) and was curious about what Malick had done with it.
Somewhat to my surprise, my first viewing of the film left me breathless. I was immediately drawn into the sights and sounds of each scene and driven by the director's extraordinary way of melding cinematography, music, characters, emotion, and setting into a single vision. Yes, I missed a few details from the script (hard to see the subtitles or absorb the spoken words, especially on a small screen) the first time, and I have absorbed more and more with each viewing (several more at home and one at a movie theater). But it was not as though it was difficult or inaccessible the first time. It worked, I think, because I let the direction make the coherency for me from the beginning.
I realize that others may have different experiences and opinions, but I would urge anyone who may be inclined to see this film to try it first by plunging in, by seeing France and Oklahoma and the characters from the inside, and letting it all sink in, reach your heart and mind and all your senses. There is an honesty and freshness to all that is portrayed -- the pain, the sorrow, the beauty, the wonder, the poverty and despair -- which makes whatever transcendence comes through as if in real time, place, and memory, rather than superimposed. And while there may be all kinds of prices to be paid in making films like this, at least this time I think Malick came as close as anyone can to making it all work beautifully together, paring film down to its barest essentials, yet creating a wondrous feast in the end. I cannot recall a film that has moved me so much (with the possible exception of Kalatozov's "Letter Never Sent").
A few words about the Christian elements in the movie. As Michael Carroll pointed out in his Amazon review, Malick's films are first and foremost experience. Part of the experience conveyed by "To the Wonder" are the words and actions that are a call to God: Marina's experiences at mass and confession, Jane's reflections on what she is told the Bible says about the loss of her child; Marina and Neil's marriage (a Protestant ceremony, as we know Marina must be denied the sacramental rite because of her prior marriage and divorce); Neil's occasional attendance at mass, his spoken rejection of Jane's request to pray with him; and, of course, the actions, sermons, and thoughts of the priest -- just to name a few. None of these calls are met with direct, or arguably, even indirect answers, and all are part of a larger whole that conveys remembered experience of people, places, and things through images and sounds.
The film is, indeed, a deeply personal and deeply Christian view of life, love, pain, sorrow, regret, and joy. But it is not a sermon, and it is not necessary to subscribe to Christianity or any other faith in particular to take part in the experience. Anyone who has experienced the slings and arrows of romantic love (and regretfully taken arms against its troubles), struggled with the demands of commitment, and doubted one's ability to make and sustain family and/or partnership, will know the pain, the guilt, and the possibilities for forgiveness and redemption, of one sort or another. Malick does indicate that there is something "missing" if we do not finally connect with others and the world around us, if we do not try our best to love and care for people and the natural world we live in. But he's not preaching this -- he's showing us the slow, painful, and often confusing experience of learning it bit by bit.
While some may find the final scenes (and the denouement that precedes them) bewildering, or at best, susceptible of multiple interpretations, I do not think that it is meant to be inconclusive in the way we might expect a "serious" film to be. Nor do I think it reflects sloppiness on the part of Malick trying to wrap up a film created in what appears (at least to the actors and outsiders) an ad hoc fashion. There is redemption, but not the kind that progresses towards a concluding epiphany. It comes instead from remembered experience and a sacramental vision of all of life, which puts brushing one's teeth, putting socks on, quarreling, lovemaking, fishing in a lake, kissing the buds on a tree, dancing, swimming, sampling for tar sand, struggling with drug addiction, poverty, and pollution, all on par with the rites of Holy Communion, confession, and matrimony.
The film tests us all, sees if we are willing to touch and feel the sunlight warming the stained glass window and walk with and among, the poor and the elderly, as well as the main characters. We can choose to hide in our homes, behind our windows, with the world outside knocking to get in, or we can see, hear, and feel what is wondrous, as well as painful, frightening, and confusing. "Christ be with me. Christ before me. Christ behind me. Christ in me. Christ beneath me. Christ above me. Christ on my right. Christ on my left. Christ in the heart." This is not a call to faith but a deep expression of what the experience of faith is. Whether one understands or shares such an experience in Christian terms, it is still a wonder to not just behold but to live for a time.
I can hardly wait for this film to come out on DVD in August. I see it is still playing in selected theaters through July. I would strongly urge anyone who wants to seriously give this film a chance to see it, at least first, on as large a screen as possible. This is NOT a film for IPad or laptop viewing. And thank you Amazon for already making the soundtrack available -- it is hauntingly beautiful.