To the Wonder follows the relationship of a Frenchwoman named Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and an American named Neil (Ben Affleck), who fall in love in Paris and then return to Neil’s American home along with Marina’s young daughter. Their relationship stalls, and another woman, Jane (Rachel McAdams), enters Neil’s life. Alongside this is narrated the story of a faithful but melancholy priest (Javier Bardem), who interacts with Neil and Marina along with his other suffering parishioners.
It seems rather banal to claim that the lush To the Wonder is a movie about commitment. But this film is a very modern meditation about how complicated it can be to commit, and an enticing whisper about how rich life might be once we do. The ascent promised in the title, the transition from romance to marriage, and more importantly, to fatherhood and motherhood, is constantly in danger of being blocked, especially by the frustrating character of Neil.
The drama in To the Wonder hinges on the struggle to bring birth into a fundamentally dead world, and to make that new life permanent (the first word spoken in the film is “newborn”). Marina celebrates the birth of love when she meets Neil, yet 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 thinks.
The struggle for her own rebirth goes hand in hand with the struggle to bring forth children from their relationship. One of the recurring visual motifs of the film is the female abdomen. With often achingly beautiful mise en scène , Malick crafts stills of the feminine torso: Jane’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 showing her IUD contraceptive. The fertility of women’s wombs will not be ignored (both of the film’s women are pointedly mothers).
The issue comes to a crisis when 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 brought face to face with his fear. In a following scene, Marina lies fully naked on the bed, and Neil hesitates to remove his jeans. “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.”
Neither Marina nor Neil fully understands what is missing in their relationship, or how to change it into something life-giving. The answer is supplied by Javier Bardem’s character, who preaches the following homily to an almost empty church:
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.
Only through generous surrender to the other in the context of unshakable loyalty do we access the permeating love that surrounds us, the “divine presence” which is already within us. Transformation occurs not through activism, but through the right kind of passivity. Losing the fear of commitment is nothing more than acknowledging the reality of a love that never changes.
To the Wonder startles us into realizing that the world is shot through, positively charged, with presence. Whether that presence is fructifying love or slinking destruction stands as an accusing question throughout the film. The most frightening aspect of all is that it is our choice to accept the love that surrounds us, or to keep ourselves destructively closed off from it, and thereby spread fear and absence of life. Far from idealizing this moment of choice, To the Wonder understands that choice comes not in a moment of critical decision, but in a thousand moments that minutely move us toward one side or the other. To show the radically different possibilities Malick sets two characters side by side: Neil and the priest.
Neil’s profession is to test for traces of toxins among the wide fields of mid-America and among the neighborhoods of the poor. Wherever he walks with his testing paraphernalia slung over his shoulder, fear is spread. The worried faces and the worried voices ask whether poison has been permeating their lives the whole time. Neil’s ability to spread unease manifests itself also in his destruction of the second woman who loves him in the film, Jane. 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.
The priest walks through those same streets of the poor, into prisons and emergency rooms, welcomed into the lives of the destitute. Whereas Neil never brought himself to touch those with whom he spoke (fences feature prominently), the priest carries only his Bible and touches everyone he meets. He listens and watches and performs his duties. He lacks emotional satisfaction but achieves perfect transparency in his simple recitation of the Breastplate of St. Patrick:
Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ in me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left.
Both Neil and the priest are extremely understated characters and, for the most part, silent. But there is a point behind their lack of characterization. In Neil’s case, it points to a true emptiness that can only spread death, while the priest’s apparent emptiness witnesses to a fullness that wells up like a spring overtaking him. We are left to choose which side we will be on.
The twin themes of saturation and fecundity in To the Wonder perfectly correlate with the cinematic means that Malick uses so bewitchingly. He swathes us with images and time crystallized into bits and snatches of memory and hope, which clasp us (momentarily at least) to the eternal. He reminds us through experiencing his movie that we too live in a world that is charged with the grandeur of God. And the hope that the movie stretches out to us is that we can be transformed into fecundity by opening ourselves up to the grace that surrounds us.
Dawn LaValle is a Ph.D. candidate in classics at Princeton University currently studying at Corpus Christi College, Oxford.