My week in film: To the Wonder

After a week in which I didn’t manage to see any non-submission films (due to leaving the house, actually) the prospect of Terrence Malick’s second film in 18 months was enough to fuel my sense of urgency. Following 2011’s The Tree of Life (2011) which saw Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain struggle to find harmony whilst raising three boys in 1950’s Texas; intercut with gloriously bonkers visuals musing on the origin of life, To the Wonder also tackles grand themes via an ostensibly domestic, romantic narrative.  to_the_wonder_7 Neil and Marina (Ben Affleck and Olga Kuylenko) are first seen enjoying the bliss of new love, living in France. Deciding to relocate to the US, they move, along with Marina’s daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) to a new build housing estate in Oklahoma. When Neil is reluctant to marry Marina, she returns to Paris leaving Neil alone, and for a while he becomes involved with a childhood friend, Jane (Rachel McAdams). When Neil and Jane break-up due to his emotional unavailability, he marries Marina who returns to the US without Tatiana; but the same anxieties persist for them both. Parallel to this, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) – whom Marina confides in – also experiences a crisis of faith despite his ties to the local community. To-The-Wonder-Trailer8This synopsis might suggest that between the characters, complex feelings and concerns are expressed – and indeed they are – but Malick eschews a reliance of expression through verbal communication, instead allowing only fractions of dialogue to be audible, as though the audience is eavesdropping on intimacy. In fact, Neil is almost never heard speaking, aside from a few French phrases and snatches of reserved sentiment offered to the two women in his life. Instead the oral offering comes in the form of voice-overs from Marina and Jane who describe their feelings for Neil and inner longings. This mainly non-verbal, more gestural depiction of human relationships might sound like an antidote (whether welcome or not) to the kind of fast-paced riffing seen in Silver Linings Playbook, or even the schizophrenic Friends with Benefits – if the Hollywood rom-com is your kind of thing – but Malick’s almost total lack of subtlety in employing such an artistic choice results in almost non-characters; unreachable ciphers standing in for man and woman. The distancing effect can also be attributed to repetitive scenes in which Neil follows Marina or Jane through fields and across beaches or gardens – and I couldn’t help thinking of these as analogous to the experience of the viewer; chasing Malick’s plot and his characters endlessly and never getting anywhere. To_the_Wonder_Terrence_Malick_81This is not to say that there aren’t things to enjoy about the film. Its beautifully shot by Malick’s cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (since The New World in 2005), which in scenes involving Father Quintana visiting his flock – reveal beauty and experience in the faces of the Oklahoma residents. As a Malick fan however I couldn’t help feeling that with The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, the director is working through ideas in a rush, that perhaps needed another five or twenty years of distillation before making their way to the screen.

If you’re interested in a more positive take on To the Wonder, Guy Lodge loves it and describes why quite elegantly, here.

Mundane History

The relationship between the individual and society is at the core of Mundane History by Anocha Suwichakornpong, but far from being a straightforward treatment of causality or employing a definitive narrative context, the film expands its theme to tackle spiritual and philosophical considerations as well. This expansion reaches as far as cosmological imagery – a juxtaposition with domesticity perhaps realised more coherently than in Malick’s Tree of Life.

The plot concerns a young man, Ake (Phakpoom Surapongsanuruk) who is paralysed from the waist down and confined to his room in his father’s manor house. Cared for by male nurse, Pun (Arkaney Cherkham), Ake oscillates between fury and obstinacy at his new, restricted world. Ake and Pun’s initial interactions are awkward, with Pun seeming unprepared for the tension and emotion of his patient, and Ake resistant to conversation with his round-the clock carer. Eventually the two find common ground, with both expressing their previous ambitions toward creative careers – one of many instances of the way the film is concerned with differences between outward appearances and internal desire.

The sense of an underlying, unspoken strain in the household – demonstrable by Ake’s father’s persistent absence – is maintained throughout, not only by the other inhabitants, who hold back from open conversation, but in the quiet, still shots of the house – both internal and external – that show through diegetic sound, how little seems to occur there. One wonders if this was the case even before Ake’s accident – the cause of which is never revealed – or if the quiet respectability is inherent to the patriarchy of the home.

In an excellent interview included with Second Run’s DVD release of the film, Suwichakornpong speaks of the way the film deals with the notion of life cycles in Thai culture. The stages of birth, decay, death, and rebirth are present both in the imagery of human childhood and Ake’s condition, and the montage, or layering of images of nature with a voice over describing the life cycle of a star. A shot of Ake’s empty room: the bed and chair notable for his and Pun’s absence cut to footage of a caesarean being performed. When described simply in this way, the grand, national and cosmological reach of Mundane History might seem heavy handed, however the effect is quite the opposite – by this point sympathy for Ake and Pun’s combined enclosure – one physical, one socio-economic – is established well enough to view their circumstances as symptomatic of the cultural norms (and life cycle) of the country as a whole, and reflective of even the most banal existence sharing elemental origins with other life forms.

It is testament to Suwichakornpong and editor Lee Chatametikool’s deft handling of the films various audio/visual elements that the pervading result comments on family structure and Thai culture with such subtlety. Finding the right music for the soundtrack was key for the director, and the editing process required a song that would compliment the visual edit. The final choice of a song by Malaysian band Furniture combines with visual shifts in the film, and punctuates the narrative. This punctuation was for the director a way of creating little ‘explosions’ of sorts that gradually expand, providing a way to introduce the cosmos to an ostensibly domestic setting.

Comparisons with Apichatpong Weerasthakul are inevitable, given the films ambiguity and balance of spiritual/familial aspects, but Suwichakornpong has clearly developed her own aesthetic, and one that is closer in its use of non-linear narrative to Wichanon Somumjorn’s In April the Following Year, There was a Fire (my review of which, you can read here).

Mundane History is an invigorating, hugely rewarding film, and one that only improves on repeat viewings – don’t miss the directors fantastic short Graceland also included in another excellent release by Second Run DVD.