Loved and loathed describes “To the Wonder” and it is no wonder those words are used for no other Malick film seeks to answer such a big question and yet is at the same time so indicting. The question is “what is love?” and the indictment rests in the answer that love is the thing we do not get to on our own or even with another person.
Onto my disjointed qualifier…..I do not know if the Fall in Eden is a beautiful thing other than in it greater love is born or if it were anything other than inevitable, but it happened and we live with the consequence. As to what we do with love, a thing that we are not deprived of in the fallen state, is what is at play for Malick in his last film. To do this the man who is the master of geography and the camera uses two landscapes in discerning the answer to a question with two answers, but only one reality.
The Sermon on the Mount (Romantic Love and the Need for Sacrament)
Neil and Marina are the assigned names for Malick’s fallen lovers. In the movie their names are not used for they are every man and woman who have felt the force of “divine madness.” They have a life before the Fall. They live in Haussmann’s Paris and traverse its’ streets. This is the Paris of the era of the beaux arts and the one that gave America the “city in a garden.” It is rich with coffee houses, museums, flowers, farmer’s markets, and shops. At the outset of To the Wonder, Paris is this Eden, the garden city of God that populated by millions exists only for two lovers and one child. The child is the only person with a name (Tatiana.) Her presence is necessary in that it informs what I take to be a big part of Malick’s message. (More on that later.)
Being lovers, Neil and Marina are content with their geography of small rooms where climax is had in another’s arms, but life is more than this and anyone who lives the life of a lover knows a fall is inevitable. In preparation for the necessary fall, Neil and Marina are led across the plains of France to the place the French call “the Wonder,” but most of the world knows as Mont Saint Michel. Here in his subtle way, Malick preaches his first sermon. He does this not so much with words, but with mountain imagery.
The Archangel Michael’s “mountain” is one where heaven and earth are drawn together and here is the high place where our lovers are taught that love is to be more than the “garden of earthly delight,” where the true climax of human relationship is to be had not only with one another, but in the covenant that binds them together with family, creation and God. I have tried to watch this film as being one where marriage is not omnipresent or a sacrament, but marriage informs this film as much as it had in Tree of Life. My thinking on To the Wonder has been influenced by this imagery that becomes Malick’s first indictment.
The entire scene at Saint Michel speaks to sacrament. When Neil and Marina travel to the high place, they first come to water. It is water that is a bulwark. It is water that kept medieval armies from the abbey of Saint Michel just like water kept wicked Pharaoh and his armies from slaughtering the children of Israel. Being God’s children, Neil and Marina are allowed to portage the tide. They are cleansed by it, by a love that Marina later declares to “be from the sky and from all around.” It is a water that takes away their sin and cleanses their love. It is a cleansing that informs us that Neil and Marina have already fallen. They have fallen into one another’s arms and in that the world which is much more beauty than sin is not devoid of sin.
On this there needs to be qualification. Malick cut his teeth on Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Kierkegaard. He had a familiarity with Rahner and Tillich. Were it not for a disagreement with his tutor, he would have earned a PhD in German philosophy. This is no small digression here. The names in this paragraph tell us a little of Malick’s studies and perhaps his thought, though on the later, we cannot be certain as Malick is such a reclusive person. What is apparent is Malick knew the language of sin and knew sin was more than moral shortcomings. Sin can include these, but it is also that place that shows us the need for correction and the need to bring healing to something that may be beautiful, though imperfect. This describes Neil and Marina and allows me to return to my thoughts.
Neil and Marina are baptized people. This is apparent later in the movie, but the scene at Mont Saint Michel shows us this before it becomes apparent. They are also good and loving people. They are not perfect and the possibility of perfectionism is not ever the philosophy of this movie. Being imperfect however, they are still allowed the sublime joy of making love and being in love. And make no mistake, this is joy rather than the moral shortcomings of sinners; To the Wonder is not a morality tale. It is a joy however that needs to be cleansed and made right, something done most obviously in the covenant of marriage. Already yoked together in baptism and an imperfect communion, the scene at Mount Saint Michel have Neil and Marina climb their mountain and enter a church where they stand together in what I am certain to be a visual for the way this cleansing could look.
Now mountains are ferocious places even the ones that are only a hundred meters tall. On a mountain the covenant of the law that at once condemns us and leads us to the path to righteous living was given. They are places inhabited by mystics and outlaws and where the tempter tells us to throw ourselves down. Mont Saint Michel is even more such a place. It has a spire that marries heaven to earth reminding us here is a place that can join Neil and Marina to one another and to the One that Marina calls “the Love that loves us.”
At this point in the movie Saint Michel is a place of possible transformation (mountains are good at that kind of thing) turning divine madness into divine love, where the beautiful but self-centered world of romance is turned outward to the love of God and/or family. Here Neil and Marina stand accused, but with an accusation that can turn from “sin” to grace. Grace can abound where sin has and their relationship can have a redemption that makes them whole. In fact the depth of their feeling and even their willingness to risk love even to the point of “violating” the law is praiseworthy if their love can be made whole in the grace imparted by sacrament. To do this a decision must be made.
Decision and the courage to make a decision is as evident in this movie as the theme of love. Marina wants to be married. Knowing the love of a man is more complete in parenthood, she also wishes for more children. (Children never born haunt this movie.) She is in the place where she is ripe to answer a question. She is atop a peak and anyone who has travelled to high places knows what this means. Malick who loves geography is aware of the watershed and why something like a proposal can be called a watershed moment. Marina never gets her question. In reverse of the Eden story, Neil makes the decision to cast himself down and take Marina with him. For this, the lovers are sent into exile on the Plains of Oklahoma.
The Sermon on the Plains (Higher Love)
Neil and Marina go to the Great Plains. In spite of being the much maligned “flyover country” between the Missouri and the Rockies, Malick has set four of his six movies here and always makes it a place of great beauty, especially at the “magic hour” when the sun still casts light on the earth but is so low that shadows are virtually absent. One of the first messages of Malick’s sermon on the Plains is Neil telling Tatiana about magic hour and the audience is given a foretaste of the necessity to nurture the earth which becomes more apparent in the remainder of the film.
The scene also speaks to “something greater.” Neil and Marina are happy, but the embers are fading. They always will for the human creature, which being in a fallen state, cannot live forever in the intensity of something like a medieval romance. With this Malick starts his indictment of human love being a thing onto itself. Marina wanted to marry and wanted to do so while still in the throes of adventure, aware adventures that exist on eros alone will fade. Neil was never aware of this new ascetic being the type who always wants to walk the café laden streets of the garden city rather than having a small garden at the side of a house. He can tell Tatiana about magic hour, but he misses the beauty of the thing being about people returning home to one another at the end of the day. When Neil and Marina move in together unmarried, all the ascetic value their lives possess is stripped, made apparent in the visual of their near empty home.
Whether lovers should marry is always an open question, but in not doing so Neil and Marina opened themselves to the day when romance in its most passionate state fades and there is nothing to replace it with. Neil has the greater blame in this. The stoic and unmovable man reveled in his lover’s dance pretending that two people could always be amazing and never average, that intensity never need fade. He has also made Marina the messenger of divinity content to see God through her, but never with her just as he was content to see family through her, but never be truly part of a family.
At the magic hour, Neil speaks to Tatiana. She is pleased and she is pleased that a man cares for the good earth. In her small mind, she thinks on being a family. The point can be missed, but in every Malick movie the love of a man and a woman is the starting point of something great and never an end to itself. Born in the great rush of passion is that which gives life meaning after the intensity of passion wanes. Echoing creation, children are born to women and men have dominion over the earth. In the raising of children and the care of the earth, the husband and wife who were once only lovers are now allies given over to family and the causes bound up in their vocations and day to day living.
For Neil and Marina, however there is only the amazing beginning of love (eros) and not the ongoing alliance of family (storge) and cause (agape.) Tatiana does not get a father and Marina does not get a husband. Marina and Tatiana return to Paris, but it is Paris after the fall. Tatiana returns to her birth father. Marina goes through days that are not the bliss of the garden, but the brutal grittiness of a metro area inhabited by 11 million people.
In Oklahoma, Neil rejects a second chance at love and walks the ravished earth. He is a feared figure because of his vocation that somehow involves the abuse of the planet. His presence among people means something is wrong with the water, which now is not the merciful tide of Mont Saint Michel that echoes baptism, but rather poisoned streams that mirror the destructive flood of God’s judgment.
No matter how much we weary Providence, Providence never wearies of us and always gives us another chance. Marina, missing Neil, returns to Oklahoma where Neil is offered another chance at love. This time they marry, but they get love wrong. Their “wedding” is a sobering and ugly scene, a civil ceremony attended by prisoners and lacking all beauty. In the proper sense of the word, it creates only a paper marriage and one that we already know will not allow for an ongoing eros. Still there is a chance for love there in its purest form. It is not the love of eros, but the agape love best exemplified by Marina’s priest Father Quintana who ministers to people in the waste lowly places.
Neil and Marina having been exiled from the garden city, cast down from the mountain and brought to the Plains are now in that lowly place that Quintana dares to walk. For Malick the visual is a new one as he turns his camera to the likes of impoverished homes, cheap motels, ramshackle businesses, and strip malls. After an act of infidelity, Marina’s attempt at knowing love just once more in the human realm, the lovers divorce. Still love is not absent and though we weary God, God does not weary of us, offering us not only the beauty of an earthly love but a love higher still. Marina having divorce thrust on her will leave to seek this love.
Father Quintana already dwells in this love, though he finds it too often absent and more obligation than joy. Still his sermons on the Plains speak of this higher love. He exemplifies this in his life as well as even in his doubt he walks among the poor and downtrodden over the ruined surface of the earth. This love is not the love of emotion, which the priest tells us comes and goes, but the agapic love of God that does not desert his children and is always present when called on. The most touching moment in To the Wonder is when Quintana acknowledges this as he recites the breastplate of St. Patrick.
The ultimate message in the Sermon on the Plains is had when Father Quintana tells us “you fear your love has died, perhaps it is waiting to be transformed into something higher…..awaken the love, the divine presence, which sleeps in each man, each woman. Know each other in that love that never changes.” The great sadness of this movie is that such a love could have been had for Neil and Marina had they married when they were at the pinnacle of their feeling for one another. That moment was ruined for them, though the opportunity to love with the love that never changes was not.
Quintana had a life with agape and no possibility of eros. It was hardly his choice as he followed a call that did not allow for it. For Neil and Marina, the matter is more clouded. In a quick flash at the conclusion of the film we see Neil in the presence of a woman and Marina in the presence of God. It is possible that Marina was never meant for eros, though having experienced it she had a greater appreciation for a higher love. It is possible that Neil having been cowardly in his love of Marina learned that a sacrament that informs eros with agape is the only way that earthly love may be complete. In any case love holds the day and that love can only be had when we find “the Love that loves us.”
It is never apparent in this movie how love should look. The only certainty is we are loved. We are loved in spite of the way we treat the earth, our dismissal of others, our disbelief and the damage we visit on ourselves. We are loved by the “Love that loves us.” That love can take us anywhere. It can take us to marriage, the priesthood, friendship, the divine madness, or agape. No one way is more right than the other as long as we dwell in love. At any point we can get it right, even if we spend most of our time getting it wrong.
Father Quintana says at one point, “you shall love whether you like it or not. That statement is really at the center of this movie. The spartan Malick is content to leave it at this counting on the viewer to get at the meaning of such a harsh statement. To conclude I will offer this small exposition that can put more meat on the content of Quintana’s pronouncement and To the Wonder itself. It comes from a reflection by Thomas Merton on St. Bernard of Clairvaux:
“Man’s nature is to love…no matter how man loves, from the moment that he loves – whether he’s loving rightly or wrongly – he’s doing that thing for which he was created. And if he’s doing it wrong, well that’s just too bad, because it means that his whole creation becomes meaningless. But if he’s doing it right, then the whole reason for his creation is fulfilled. But whether he loves rightly or wrongly, he’s got to love, because he’s made for love, and he has to love. The only thing that there is a choice between – it’s not whether he should love or not love – it’s whether he should love rightly or wrongly, because he can’t help loving.” (Quote found on By Way of Beauty.)
Feature Image By Nicolas Raymond, CC License