If Terrence Malick directed a soap opera, it just might look like this

To the Wonder

Directed by Terrence Malick

Opens at the Charles Theatre April 12

Against a black screen a woman's voice speaks in French. "Newborn . . . I open my eyes," she purrs, subtitles translate. "I melt . . . into the eternal night. A spark . . . you got me out of the darkness." A few shaky images flicker across the screen: a woman, dark-haired, bright-eyed, smiling; a man, ditto. Scenery flashes by-they're on a train, their digital camera capturing the landscape as it smears into blurry horizontal bands. They laugh. They can't keep their hands off each other. Soon, they're driving in a convertible toward Mont-Saint-Michel, in France. There they walk, bodies colliding, hands held, arms interlocked. They walk through a gorgeous seaside setting, his hand finds her hip, her hair windswept. The tide out, they stroll on the exposed muddy ocean floor, undulating like Jell-O. Symphonic music dips and swells. They're in love. They're in France. She has a daughter. He lives in America. They're going to come with him.

And with this rush of sights and sounds, Terrence Malick's To the Wonder begins, in the dreamy swirl that has become his stylistic signature. Since he returned to directing in 1998 with The Thin Red Line, Malick has inched ever closer to pure abstraction with each subsequent movie. He sought to capture the sublime feeling of the old world first encountering The New World in 2006, while in 2011 he aimed for capturing existence's essence with The Tree of Life. His films are visually breathtaking, and the people who work with him-from actors to crew-grant him a level of respect that approaches adoration.

That deference can extend into his movies' audiences. In the 20-year silence following his sublime Badlands and Days of Heaven, Malick accrued a beatific aura, this feeling that what he does is profound and meaningful because he does it. That Malick is more reclusive than Bigfoot only adds to his elusive allure. The expectation inherent in his reputation doesn't just elevate Malick the auteur to cinema's upper echelons, it makes going to his movies feel like church. Buy ticket, get popcorn, and genuflect taking a seat.

Thing is, what if he's not trying to mine the universe's greatest mysteries? What if Malick made a soap opera? To the Wonder is that movie, and it's a curious addition to his canon. On one hand, it's the director's third consecutive collaboration with Emmanuel Lubezki, and they've streamlined their visual language into something consistently fresh and frequently intoxicating. In American Cinematographer interviews with Lubezki about New World and Tree of Life, the Mexican cinematographer talks about the constraints he and Malick put on the movies' shooting to get the kinds of images they wanted, such as Steadicam cameras that most frequently move longitudinally forward, and how those "rules" necessitated certain decisions on set: Lubezki said he ended up backlighting people often in both movies because it would be easier to match for continuity in the editing room.

The approach made for some truly startling moments, and they become emotional flourishes in Wonder's conventional story of a guy who doesn't know what he wants. Midwestern American Neil (Ben Affleck) meets stunning European single mother Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and brings her and her daughter (Tatiana Chiline) to his home in Oklahoma, where the relationship stalls. She and daughter return to Paris; he rekindles a relationship with a woman he grew up knowing (Rachel McAdams), only to marry Marina when she writes saying she wants to come back. She does, they wed-only, whatever kept them from staying together the first time hasn't changed. In the background, the local priest (Javier Bardem) is having a crisis of faith. If that sounds a tad boilerplate, it is. To the Wonder is the only thing occupying that Venn diagram where Nicholas Sparks' three-hanky melodrama overlaps with Robert Bresson's cinematic poetry.

Pretentious? Absolutely. Articulated in the Malick/Lubezki visual language, it becomes a collaged recollection of a relationship's collapse. Having the camera mostly move forward means it's often chasing after Marina, who starts to feel like she's fleeing from memory. Relying on natural light and backlighting lends actors a haloed glow. At times, Wonder's meandering voiceovers, choppy editing rhythm, and drifting, handheld-camera-shot images begin to establish a conflicted logic, like a photo album of an old relationship that somebody refuses to throw away.

That it's not entirely satisfying as a narrative film is merely because it isn't-in fact, Wonder might make more sense if played in installation as a continuous loop, which might allow for some of its visual moments to sink in better. Marina and Tatiana dance and twirl through the parks in France; in America, they do it in grocery store. Normandy's Mont-Saint-Michel is visually indelible; the only time the stateside Oklahoma setting is established is when Bardem's priest goes to a prison where an inmate has "Osage County" printed on his jumpsuit. And the tensions of the Neil-and-Marina dyad get mimicked in exterior shots of the new subdivision where they live, where an orderly fence is the only thing separating the domesticated home from the wild, dusty plain.

These are fleeting moments in a nearly two-hour movie trying to sketch a small portion of people's lives in nothing but such fleeting moments. That's incredibly frustrating if seeking a tangible plot, but it often does leave an emotional impression. And given the blustery way emotions wax and wane in this picture, you leave having gained no real insight into the nature of love per se, wondering how two people every really connect at all. ■

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