I think it’s fairly well understood that Malick’s films are an acquired taste, especially the more recent ones. After The Tree of Life (2011) — which on balance I was not a huge fan of — comes this new film, and both of them (more than previous Malick films) eschew traditional scenes of dialogue, often cutting away before someone speaks or cutting to them just after it seems as if they’ve spoken. On the rare occasions when characters are shown speaking, the sound is generally faded out before they finish, let alone any response is given. Swift editing imbricates flashes of future and past time, an impressionistic bricolage of images. Which all goes to make it a film of fleeting experiences, of connections made at a level other than speech. Of course, there’s still the poetic voiceover, this time primarily in French (also Spanish and Italian, and very little English), which perhaps makes the tone of it less intrusive to English-speaking audiences than it can seem in such films as The Thin Red Line (1999, my personal favourite of Malick’s films). But you wouldn’t expect a Malickian voiceover to explain anything: it remains at the level of laconic, gnomic utterances.
The film is focused on Olga Kurylenko, as a free-spirited French woman who falls in love with an American, moves to Oklahoma for a while, then moves home. That’s basically all that happens in the film, at a plot level. As a character, she’s thinly-drawn: she has no apparent job. The camera constantly follows her as she walks, sometimes runs, ahead, spreading out her arms, twirling, pulling her friends, her lovers, the camera, us, behind her. There are three other, essentially supporting, characters here. Ben Affleck is her love interest, playing some kind of environmental scientist, so his primary relationship is with nature, and there are fleeting scenes showing the damage being wreaked on it by people. The lovely Rachel McAdams plays a local woman who works on a farm (this bit is a bit less believable), so again she works with the land. Javier Bardem plays a priest, perhaps the character who is most often shown trying to communicate, which often takes him to more human scenes of dereliction and poverty.
But the film doesn’t really feel as if it’s about these characters as people, so much as what they represent. There’s the contrast between Europe (Mont Saint-Michel on the coast, the city of Paris) and the new world of Oklahoma. The faith that seems centred at Mont Saint-Michel is set adrift in the huge expanses of Oklahoma; it’s only in the enclosed spaces of the prison and the confessional booth that Bardem’s character connects with his calling. But then again the outdoors in this new world is always filmed imbued with a beautiful radiant golden light, where it’s glum and a bit oppressive in Europe.
If those are just some feelings I get from the film, thinking back upon it, then that’s because it’s a film primarily of feelings. It certainly won’t be for everyone, but it made me happy.
Director/Writer Terrence Malick; Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki; Starring Olga Kurylenko Ольга Куриленко, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 24 February 2013.