The Gift of Wonder: The Vision of Terrence Malick

Dawn LaValle

To the Wonder, 2013. Written and directed by Terrence Malick.

The Tree of Life, 2011. Written and directed by Terrence Malick.

Although Terrence Malick released no films immediately after The New World (2005), two works written and directed by one of the most profound living film-makers were recently released within two years: The Tree of Life and To the Wonder. Hold these two films side by side, and a thematic complementarity emerges. They both treat different moments in the spectrum of life: while The Tree of Life deals with familial love, To the Wonder deals with the vagaries of the erotic. It is precisely the moment of transition from romance to marriage, and more fundamentally still, to the world of fatherhood and motherhood explored so richly in The Tree of Life, that is the all-important hurdle that might or might not be crossed in To the Wonder.

The Tree of Life is a lyrical movie about childhood, growth and destruction, as we follow the memories of the main character, Jack, coming to terms with his relationship to his parents after the death of his brother. To the Wonder follows the tortuous path of the relationship between a French woman, Marina, and Neil, her American lover, as they circle in and out of intimacy. The Tree of Life begins with the shattering advent of death into a world teeming with life, symbolized through insets depicting the wonder of life on the planet. The drama in To the Wonder, on the other hand, hinges on the struggle to bring birth into a fundamentally dead world, symbolized by a polluted environment and a central character (Neil) who is barren of emotion.

The Tree of Life repeatedly represents containment, bonds that chafe and constrain, the encircling arms of an overbearing father obsessed with yard boundaries. In scene after scene, the image that typifies the movie is the wedding ring: often front and center on the heavy hand of Brad Pitt laid on the neck of his son or the arm of his wife. Likewise the recurring circle of the family dinner table in The Tree of Life brings together while simultaneously revealing the distance between the family members. The couples in To the Wonder, in contrast, never eat at home. They either burn their dinner to a crisp (Marina’s daughter says that her mother has a talent for mixing drinks, not making food), eat in restaurants, or watch like awkward anthropologists when invited to experience a family dinner at a neighbor’s house. The restrictions experienced in The Tree of Life, especially the marriage bond, while heavy, are also what allow for creation. The rich life of the family circle is a result not only of the grace-filled mother but also of the law-making father, whose unflinching loyalty provides the structure of the family. Jack, the son in the film, only starts to “do what he hates” when his father is absent on a lengthy business trip, and the painfully controlled patriarchal dinners are accompanied by as much creative music as is the birth of the cosmos.

In sharp distinction to the mother in The Tree of Life, for most of To the Wonder Marina fills the role not of a wife but of a seducer, prancing among rows of consumerist grocery products willing to be whatever Neil wants her to be. Without bonds, Marina must prostitute herself: in one scene we see her take on the part of an animal in order to “cradle him in tenderness”, to keep Neil to herself and away from the distractions of other women. She dances and twirls not only for the delight of life, but in order to entrance. This is something that the wife never needs to do in The Tree of Life: it is required only when there is no protecting commitment. A sense of worry and precariousness fills the interactions of Marina and Neil, the unavoidable knowledge that something is missing. Without commitment their love is sterile. They must choose whether to be open to fecundity, and that decision determines which encircling world they tap into and which world they spread to others.

The very first word spoken in To the Wonder is “newborn.” With the advent of her love for Neil, Marina celebrates her return to life. But halfway through the film she runs out of the house screaming, “He’s killing me!” Her new birth will not be granted as easily as she first thought. The struggle for her own rebirth goes hand-in-hand with the struggle to bring forth children from their relationship. With often achingly beautiful mise en scène, Malick crafts stills of the feminine torso: a woman’s red dress cinched by a black belt set against a waving field of autumnal grain, the cursor outlining Marina’s pelvic bones in the X-ray which heralds the crisis of the movie. Marina has her IUD removed for medical reasons and suddenly the possibility of pregnancy is introduced. Until then, her love of Neil has been contraceptive in the deepest sense, and Neil is now brought face to face with his fear. “What are you afraid of?” Marina asks, and his silence responds with perfect clarity. The doctor’s voice lingers over the scene: “The question you and your husband need to consider is whether now would be a good time for children.”

How can a transformation occur from a relationship based on sterility to one based on fertility? The homilies of the faithful but lonely priest in To the Wonder provide the answer:

You shall love whether you like it or not. Emotions, they come and go like clouds. Love is not only a feeling; you shall love. To love is to run the risk of failure, the risk of betrayal. You fear your love has died; perhaps it is waiting to be transformed into something higher. Awaken the divine presence which sleeps in each man, each woman. Know each other in that love that never changes.

It might seem simplistic to claim that the lush To the Wonder is a movie about commitment. But it is only through generous surrender to the other in the context of commitment that we access the permeating love that surrounds us, the “divine presence” which is already within us. The alternative is vividly realized by the character Jane, the “other woman” in Neil’s life. After Neil rejects Jane’s offer of commitment and marriage, Jane says of Neil, “You made it lust. Pleasure.” He denies the possibility of transforming their relationship into life and instead makes it into mutual use.

But just as the movement to that life, and that life itself, are not easy, so too these are not always easy films to watch. Despite the fact that his movies feel so significant, Malick does not choose to spell out what that significance is. He frustrates our desire for a straightforward narrative, and privileges circling narratives that involve memory and desire as well as present reality. The films are meant to affect us in a way that is not only cerebral, or even simply narrative. These films are meant to be experienced, not simply ‘understood’. Their beauty bathes us in light as in a garment, and lift us temporarily out of the banality of existence, in order that we might return to understand that existence better.

Dawn LaValle is a Fellow by Examination (JRF) in Classics at Magdalen College, Oxford.