To the Wonder

Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick
Year: 2012
Cast: Olga Kurylenko, Ben Affleck, Javier Bardem

★★★★★

Released less than two years after The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder acts as a companion piece, retaining the visual cues, cinematic poetry and overriding themes of love and faith. While it does not have the grandiosity, the soaring ambition of the former film, it is equally uncompromising, and those who found The Tree of Life intolerable will probably find this equally, if not more, so. The characters communicate through whispered voiceovers, sparse fragments of dialogue; Malick through images of sky, running water, lens flares, juxtapositions of light. At times it does seem overly familiar but To the Wonder is less nostalgic, more pessimistic and, at heart, coming from a different place altogether.

To the Wonder Olga Kurylenko

It begins in Paris, rendered gorgeously in the opening sunlit sequence; we are shown a couple on holiday, filming themselves on the Métro, strolling in the Jardin du Luxembourg, fixing a padlock to the Pont des Arts. They drive to Mont Saint-Michel and walk on an idyllic beach of dark, springy sand, a scene reminiscent of The Tree of Life’s paradise. They climb the steps and revel in the isolated beauty of the setting and the glory of their love. Back in Paris, Neil (Ben Affleck) asks Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and her daughter to move to Oklahoma to live with him, an invitation they joyously accept, but, once there, the tensions in their relationship are stretched to breaking point.

Marina is oppressed by her new environment, an outsider shackled by the walls and fences of nondescript houses, the vague, flat landscape and the faithlessness of the modern world. She is passionate, sensual, free-spirited; to those around her, merely unhinged. She is unable to cope with the failure of her love. Neil is an atheist, a modern American brute, handsome and physically strong but without an outlet for his passion. He works on construction sites, investigating the damage caused to the natural environment. He is complicit in the violence that is done to the earth.

Malick is idealistic in the philosophical sense and, with every shot, To the Wonder seems to hint at what lies beyond the range of our perception. ‘Life’s a dream’, says Anna (Romina Mondello), a minor character who appears in just a single scene, but the only one who comes across as truly liberated. Through the purest images and experiences, we intuitively sense the divine presence in the world, the love that exists within us and around us. The cinematography is designed to bring it out. However, modernity has distorted the phenomenal world and made it virtually impossible to believe in the noumenal. The film’s central motif is the veil, whether it consists of a pane of plastic in a chapel window, a pixelated image from a cheap video camera or a translucent sheet of white material across the eyes.

To the Wonder Ben Affleck Rachel McAdams

The film is littered with shots of dug earth and deserted, impoverished houses; we are shown herds of buffalo and constrained horses, domestic violence and callous sex.  These images pollute the purity of the light that Malick makes his ultimate subject. Love, more often than not, is damaging, because it is impossible to truly believe in it; perhaps it would be better to say truly perceive it. Arguably, the most significant character is Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a priest wracked with existential doubt and the pressures of an expanding parish in an increasingly deprived area. He knows he should perceive God all around him, but he has never been able to. ‘You shall love, whether you like it or not’, he commands. ‘Emotions, they come and go like clouds…Know each other in that love that never changes’. To do so takes a lifetime of struggle. Without faith, it is impossible and love can only destroy.

The film is put together like a series of memories, transient and impressionistic, concerned not so much with narrative as symbolic representation of significant events. Names are only revealed in the final credits and it is difficult to guess the order in which everything happens. It is flawed, certainly, occasionally frustrating, and promotes a worldview that will unfortunately put a lot of people off. But, like its predecessor, To the Wonder is bold, original and technically astonishing — idealism in cinematic form. Malick’s last two films have been fearless, groundbreaking works, attempts at pushing cinema beyond its limitations.

Rob Dickie

The Turin Horse (A torinói ló)

Director: Béla Tarr, Ágnes Hranitzky
Writer: László Krasznahorkai, Béla Tarr
Year: 2011
Cast: János Derzsi, Erika Bók, Mihály Kormos

★★★★★

“Script?” commented the woman sitting next to me after the relevant credit flashed up on the screen. She could probably have said the same about many of the others. Even I raised an eyebrow at “Supporting Cast”. The fact is that The Turin Horse is a film in which almost nothing happens that will bore most audiences to tears. By “The Third Day”, the title frames seemed to have become a running joke. By “The Sixth Day”, everyone had stopped laughing. It reminded me of going to see Melancholia – half the audience had been long asleep by the time “Part Two” came around, and a good portion of those still awake let out audible groans.

You can’t please everyone though and, as with Lars Von Trier, you get the impression that Béla Tarr isn’t really trying. The Turin Horse is intended to be the culmination of his career but it will only ever appeal to a dedicated few. “So what kind of film is it?” asked my flatmate when I came in. “Action?” “No,” I replied, “the opposite of that. Inaction!” If you were to attempt to place it in a genre, that is accurate as you are going to get.

The Turin Horse

Shot in a bleak-looking black and white, the film is made up of only 30 takes and, visually, it is mesmerising. Watching it is like being taken around an exhibition featuring a hundred astonishing paintings by a great artist, all depicting approximately the same thing. It is relentlessly repetitive – the characters move with a rigid circularity – but the subtle changes that take place between each scene are all the more noticeable for it. So intimately are certain actions depicted that even the slightest modification can be startling. The attention to detail and dedication to every shot is remarkable, while the set is flawlessly constructed to facilitate Tarr’s cinematic vision.

The starting point, as we are told but not shown, is the apocryphal story of Nietzsche’s descent into madness. Seeing a cab driver brutally whipping his stubborn horse in Turin, Nietzsche goes up to him, throws his arms around the horse’s neck and sobs violently. He collapses, is taken home and never recovers from the incident. Tarr never quite leaves Nietzsche behind, but chooses to follow the driver and his horse back to their meagre rural existence, oblivious to the significance of what has taken place.

The driver lives only with his daughter and they come into contact with virtually nobody else. Their lives revolve around looking after the horse, keeping the fire going, fetching water from the well and eating boiled potatoes with their hands. At the mercy of the elements, the interminable gale, they struggle on, doing the same thing day in day out. Can this be called existence? A man arrives to buy pálinka and delivers a lengthy monologue on the degradation of the world. Gypsies appear from over the hill to steal water and deliver an obscure book. As far as the plot goes, that’s about it. And you get the impression it’s been an eventful week. They live to toil on the land, to suffer in nature’s fearful symmetry. This is no pastoral – there is not a shred of romance – but the characters are not condemned either. Their torture is beyond their control, coming perhaps from God, perhaps from the outside world.

The Turin Horse Messenger

The narrative ultimately has devastating consequences, which are hinted at rather than acted out. The horse gradually deteriorates as the gale gets stronger, but it is only towards the end that we realise the significance of these events. It is a deceptively simple film with a fin de siècle narrative so original you might miss it altogether. Darkness descends on the house but in the end we are shown the light. The final scene is breathtaking.

The Turin Horse is a film of rare intensity and scarcely believable focus. Backed by Mihály Vig’s majestic score, which has a dramatic intensity akin to Clint Mansell’s Requiem for a Dream, it rewards whatever attention you are willing to give it. If it does prove to be Tarr’s last film, it is certainly not a bad one to bow out on. Nobody would dare to question the director’s credit, however difficult they found it to sit through.

Rob Dickie

Run Lola Run (Lola rennt)

Director: Tom Tykwer
Writer: Tom Tykwer
Year: 1998
Cast: Franka Potente, Moritz Bleibtreu, Herbert Knaup

★★★★☆

A wise philosopher, who happened to be staying on my sofa for a few days, told me that we will continue living until we accept that it is our time to die. Life is a continual refusal to die. We say no, no, no, and then, at one point, it becomes our time to say yes, and we die in a moment of acceptance. Run Lola Run presents a similar philosophy, giving its characters a degree of control over their destiny. “Nein,” says Lola (Franka Potente), and, despite bleeding to death, she lives.

Run Lola Run is an overtly philosophical film. It opens with choice quotations from T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding, never a bad thing, although it is unfortunately in German, and Sepp Herberger, one of football’s most original intellectuals. It asks a series of questions about the mysteries of the human race before any action can begin. But, the ball is round. The film is 90 (well, 81) minutes. And even if we end up where we started, we have to get going just the same.

Do I seriously have to run again?

A snappy telephone exchange between Lola and her hapless boyfriend, Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu), establishes the conflict. Manni owes a dangerous man 100,000 marks, which he clumsily left on a train to be picked up by a hobo. Lola is partly responsible as she was his getaway driver and turned up too late. He has 20 minutes to come up with the money, and his brightest idea is to rob a supermarket. It is up to Lola to rescue him from his fate. But she is going to have to run.

The running scenes are endless but fantastic. Franka Potente looks wonderful in motion, with her bright red hair, bright green trousers, and unreliable bra strap slipping off and on beneath her vest. The soundtrack is great as well, recorded by writer/director Tom Twyker, and it perfectly compliments the playful intensity of the action. Twyker’s direction is inventive and varied, switching between different types of film, animation, and Polaroid snaps which outline the futures of a cast of minor characters that Lola flashes by. Due to the film’s repetitive nature, it is important for Twyker to keep things interesting, and he definitely succeeds in that. The pace is varied, switching effortlessly from hectic running sequences to soap opera drama to lazy pillow-talk philosophising. There are plenty of good jokes too, which rely heavily on dramatic irony.

The main sequence is repeated three times, with subtle changes that have far-reaching effects. A moment’s difference can make all the difference. An innocuous decision can change your future and the future of everyone around you. Some things are meant to be. Others are not.

There is nothing groundbreaking in any of this. The phrase MTV generation pops up regularly when reading about the film, and it is apt in the more positive sense of the phrase. Run Lola Run is fast-paced, bite-sized philosophy, but it’s presented in a way that still seems fresh and interesting. It’s a riff rather than a symphony, but one that I expect my wise philosopher would appreciate.

Rob Dickie

The Tree of Life

Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick
Year: 2011
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Brad Pitt, Hunter McCracken

★★★★★

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?

The Tree of Life opens with this quotation from the Book of Job, set against a black screen. It is a big question, but this is a big film. It has been compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey for many reasons, most of them aesthetic. However, it is also reminiscent of its scope, its attempt to portray, if not to answer, the big questions. 2001 presents an unattainable truth, concealed in an alien object which is beyond our understanding. The Tree of Life presents a family.

It is a film where every shot is genuinely astonishing

It is a film where every shot is genuinely astonishing

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth? That is a question at the heart of every family. Jack (Hunter McCracken/Sean Penn) is a child, who, like all others, grows up to question the way of the world. He questions his father (Brad Pitt) for the way he has restricted his relationship with his mother (Jessica Chastain), for his forceful nature, for the way in which he and his brothers have been brought up. Pitt’s character is unsympathetic. It is clear he loves his children, but his love appears cruel and hard. His performance is all in the chin.

But the children do not know the way of the world, and it is up to the father to teach them. Who are they to question him, when all they have rests in what he has built? He has built it with his own hands, as he continually reminds us.

The mother is the antithesis of the father. She is love embodied. Considering the lack of dialogue she has to work with, Chastain gives a remarkable performance and Malick directs her superbly. The goodness and purity of the character shines through every look, every gesture, whether she is laughing or in tears. She is believable in every sense, as a mother, as the ultimate mother, as an Eve. At one point she floats in the air beneath a tree, and we believe her.

The struggle in the film is between the father and the mother, or the way of nature and the way of grace, as Malick puts it. In other words, between what we are given in life (by God) to work with, and the ideal that we yearn to be. The allegory is deceptively simple. All the wonders of eternity, all the grace and cruelty of God, presented in the image of a family which is unquestionably real.

It sounds too good to be true and perhaps is. The main problem is one of balance. At times, the middle section of the film does not seem to progress, and, despite beautiful imagery and strong performances, it cannot quite live up to the spectacular frame. Penn’s older Jack is underused, despite the importance of his role, and the omission of the dramatic catalyst of the narrative means the audience must take a leap of faith to entirely connect with the ending. It is evidently a personal film, which may explain Malick’s aversion to conventional narrative techniques, even at the expense of synthesis.

It is, at the same time, a very easy and very difficult film to criticise. It is not flawless, yet feels like it should be. It must be said that the opening and closing scenes are some of the most beautiful that exist in cinema. It is a spiritual experience and one that won’t be replicated for a long time. Just go and see it.

Rob Dickie