Detailed Synopsis for Terrence Malick’s TO THE WONDER Revealed; Ben Affleck Describes the Film as “A Memory of a Life”

     August 31, 2012


The elusive yet brilliant filmmaker Terrence Malick has been a busy man this year, working on two brand new features with all-star casts that include people like Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, and Cate Blanchett.  However, while I was thrilled to hear that Malick is becoming so prolific as of late, we still hadn’t heard anything about the director’s “mysterious” romantic drama To the Wonder, which he shot in 2010. We knew that the film starred Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Olga Kurylenko and Javier Bardem, but next to nothing was known about the film’s plot.

Good news was delivered late last month when it was announced that To the Wonder would be screening this fall at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals, confirming that Malick has (hopefully) completed his lengthy post-production.  The press notes for the Venice Film Festival, which is currently running, provide an incredibly detailed and eye-opening look at the plot for To the Wonder, along with some comments about the film from star Ben Affleck.  Hit the jump to take a look.

Though some may be wary about spoilers in such a lengthy synopsis, keep in mind that a similar plot description surfaced for The Tree of Life and I don’t think many felt “spoiled” when that film finally hit theaters; Malick’s films aren’t exactly the type that can be “spoiled” so I think spoilerphobes will be safe. This detailed synopsis apparently appears in the press notes at the Venice Film Festival, and we have the transcribed portion here courtesy of The Film Stage:

TO THE WONDER, written and directed by Terrence Malick, is a romantic drama centered on Neil, a man who is torn between two loves: Marina, the European woman who came to United States to be with him, and Jane, the old flame he reconnects with from his hometown. In TO THE WONDER, Malick explores how love and its many phases and seasons – passion, sympathy, obligation, sorrow, indecision – can transform, destroy, and reinvent lives.

As TO THE WONDER opens, Neil and Marina are together on the French island of Mont St. Michel – known in France as The Wonder of the Western World (Merveille de l’Occident) – and invigorated by feelings of being newly in love. Neil, an aspiring writer, has left the United States in search of a better life, leaving behind a string of unhappy affairs. Looking into Marina’s eyes as the Abbey looms in the distance, Neil is certain he has finally found the one woman he can love with commitment. He makes a vow to be true to this woman alone.

Marina, quiet and beautiful, with flashes of a mischievous humor, is divorced and the mother of a 10-year-old daughter, Tatiana. At 16, Marina left the Ukraine for Paris without a cent to her name. There, she married a Frenchman who abandoned her after just two years, leaving her alone with Tatiana in a studio apartment. Marina was forced to work a variety of temporary jobs to make her way. Having nearly given up hope, Marina is overcome with joy to be in love with Neil, her salvation from an unhappy future.

terrence_malick_untitled_film_set_image_ben_affleckTwo years later, Neil and Marina are living in a small town in Oklahoma, close to where Neil grew up. Neil, having given up his hopes of becoming a writer, has taken a job as an environmental inspector. Neil is happy with his work, but his love for Marina cools as she, for her part, is frustrated by the holding pattern she feels she is in with Neil. She fears her youth – and happiness – are slipping away. In spite of her anxieties about Neil, Marina initially feels at home in Oklahoma, embraced by the open space and sky, and soothed by the sounds that come from the wind harp that animates breezes into songs.

Seeking advice, Marina turns to another exile in the community, a Catholic priest named Quintana. We learn that Father Quintana has come to grapple with his own dilemmas, as he harbors doubts about his vocation. He no longer feels the ardor he knew in the first days of his faith, and wonders if he ever will again.

terrence_malick_untitled_film_set_image_02Professional life throws Neil into conflict as well, when he discovers that a smelting operation in town is polluting the soil and water and threatening the health of future generations. His concerns fail to persuade his neighbors, who depend on the smelter for their livelihoods. Under pressure to keep quiet, Neil must once again weigh the consequences of his actions.

Neil’s doubts about Marina intensify. This, coupled with the fact that Marina’s visa is soon to expire, leads her to return to France with her daughter. In her absence, Neil reconnects with Jane, an old friend. As the two of them fall deeply in love, Neil finds this new relationship far less complicated. Yet when word comes to him that Marina has fallen on hard times and her daughter has gone to live with her father and refuses to have anything more to do with her, he finds himself gripped by a sense of responsibility for her wellbeing, and arranges for her return to the United States.

Neil’s entanglements with the two women in his life, and Father Quintana’s struggle with his faith, force them both to consider different kinds of love. Should the commitment they each made be undertaken as a duty, sometimes full of effort? Or should we accept that love often changes, and doesn’t always last? Can sorrow bind lovers more tightly than joy?

terrence-malick-untitled-movie-image-ben-affleck-rachel-mcadams-01How very Malickian, no?  Apparently To the Wonder is even more loosely plotted than Tree of Life, and Affleck himself echoes these sentiments while talking about the film in another portion of the press notes:

“The film feels to me like more a memory of a life than a literal story in real time of someone’s life, the way movies more commonly are. This pastiche of impressionistic moments, skipping across the character’s life and moving in a nonlinear way, mirror, in my mind, the way one remembers one’s life. It’s a little hypnotic and you’re a little bit in a daze — it’s more fluid than real life is.”

We recently learned that a number of actors who shot scenes for To the Wonder (including Rachel Weisz, Michael Sheen, and Barry Pepper) don’t appear in the final cut, but this isn’t exactly a surprise given Malick’s penchant for crafting the film in the editing room.  In fact, rumors have swirled that Ben Affleck’s role in the film may have been severely minimalized a la Adrien Brody in The Thin Red Line.  I’m not entirely convinced these rumors are true, but I wouldn’t be shocked to find Affleck’s screentime more akin to Sean Penn’s in The Tree of Life.

Malick shot most of To the Wonder in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and the rest of the press notes speak of Malick’s fondness for the location choice.  Head on over to The Film Stage for the full rundown, which includes the director’s heavy use of classical music in place of the film’s score.  To the Wonder premieres at the Venice Film Festival and will also screen at the Toronto International Film Festival, so we should have our first reactions fairly soon.

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