First Night: To The Wonder, Venice Film Festival

With cheers and jeers, maverick Malick keeps his reputation intact

Terrence Malick wasn't on the Venice Lido for the premiere of his latest film. Stars Ben Affleck and Javier Bardem also stayed away. After all the hoopla surrounding Malick's Palme D'Or winning Tree of Life in Cannes last year, the reaction to To the Wonder was surprisingly muted. There were scattered cheers but also some booing at the press screening yesterday morning.

Malick certainly didn't deserve such a lukewarm response. The new feature is made in the same lithe, improvisatory fashion as its predecessor, with hand-held camera work and the constant use of natural light. Formally, it's an astonishing piece of work, a triumph for cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. It is also edited extraordinarily gracefully.

The storytelling and performances stutter on occasion and the references to religion come close to sermonising but this is still an utterly original film from a director reinventing his medium as he goes along.

To the Wonder is a love story. A French woman (Olga Kurylenko) and an American (Affleck) are first seen in France, in the throes of a passionate affair. In quicksilver fashion, Malick shows them roaming round Paris and travelling through the countryside to Mont Saint-Michel.

There is hardly any dialogue. Instead, the actors are heard whispering voice-over reflections on their romance. Taking her young daughter with her, the woman moves to America with the man. (We never learn their names, although these are given in the press material.) Their relationship slowly and inevitably begins to unravel.

Meanwhile, in slightly heavy-handed fashion, Malick sketches in the story of a priest (Bardem) who is struggling with a crisis in his faith. "How long will you hide yourself," he mournfully intones as he searches for God.

Malick doesn't deal in irony or humour. The film is in deadly earnest throughout. It is structured more like a symphonic visual poem than a conventional narrative. The actors, reportedly assigned to read Dostoevsky and Tolstoy as part of their preparation, sometimes struggle with roles that give them little to work with.

Affleck is stiff and uncertain, while the casting of Bardem is perplexing. Kurylenko moves with balletic grace while Rachel McAdams registers strongly as a woman living on a ranch who has a fling with Affleck.

However, Lubezki's camera is the real star here, swirling around the lovers and honing in on their smallest looks and gestures. There is constant classical music on the soundtrack (composers used include Berlioz and Shostakovitch.)

As ever, Malick is as interested in the natural world as in his human protagonists. He somehow makes a throwaway scene of a fly on a ceiling seem uncannily beautiful and throws in plenty of gorgeously shot, mist-shrouded, crepuscular landscapes. Horses and bison likewise figure prominently. The director is always looking for the grace note. Even when he is depicting an adulterous affair, he is more interested in the way a shaft of light is caught in the woman's hair than in anything as banal as lust or guilt. His emphasis on visual beauty at the expense of psychology is fetishistic and sometimes downright silly.

For all its foibles, though, To the Wonder is an entrancing film that nobody but Malick could have made.

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