At first blush, a 16-month gap between new Terrence Malick films is an incredibly small amount of time. After all, here's a man who's up to now managed to produced, on average, about one film per decade, if that. However, upon actually seeing his latest work, To the Wonder, that gap feels, if anything, just right. Malick's lavishly acclaimed 2011 effort, The Tree of Life, represented the apotheosis of a style that he had spent the better part of three decades refining, ultimately arriving with a work of unparalleled ambition and scope. In many ways, it's the supreme representation of the Malick aesthetic, presented fully formed and without shame. It was his first clearly autobiographical film, and in both look, tone, and thematics, To the Wonder is noticeably similar, an almost seamlessly updated account of marital discord from The Tree of Life's 1950s suburban milieu to an undefined late-century countryside landscape. Appropriate, as To the Wonder, in nearly every respect, plays like an intimate companion piece to its successor's cosmic wonderment.
Opening unexpectedly in France, To the Wonder charts in impressionistic fashion the bonds meant to reinforce the matrimonial essence and potential between two enigmatic partners relocated from Europe to the Midwestern United States. The couple, played by Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko, are the most loosely defined, symbolic creations of Malick's career. Symbolic of what, however, is hard to say, as To the Wonder never proceeds in any logical fashion nor engages with any traditional exposition, drifting evocatively between thoughts, memories, and internal prayers. Dialogue, when present, is delivered in Malick's trademark whispered voiceover, while structurally the film evolves as if solely by intuitive logic; Malick's broken marriage from the late '90s is the only cue as to the film's internal thesis—and if you don't bring that bit of knowledge to the table yourself, you may be left completely alone to wade through Malick's yearning, transient torrents of sensation.
On paper, this reads like a potentially transcendent experience, and there's no doubt that this is what Malick is attempting to deliver at every given moment of this intimate epic. In execution, however, the results are equally as beautiful but curiously less engaging and consistently less enrapturing than The Tree of Life, the only fair point of comparison here (though the sunbaked hues of Days of Heaven do present a visual precedent). There's almost no plot to speak of: Besides a brief, mid-film appearance from Rachel McAdams as Affleck's former sweetheart, who ultimately tests the strength of his commitment, and intermittent sequences featuring Javier Bardem as a local priest (thus establishing the requisite spiritual dimension, further linking these two works), there's very little narrative detail to acknowledge. To the Wonder is an obviously personal work, but at the expense of any actual characterization we receive only ciphers and figures, intangible beings wandering their way from Malick's soul to the screen with an obvious passion but with little wider functionality. In the end, it's a particularly outré B-side to The Tree of Life's surprisingly more lucid and utilitarian watershed.
Thematic preoccupations are what make individual filmmakers so intriguing as one steps back to examine certain artist's entire careers. Restless French auteur Olivier Assayas himself has multiple career-long engagements, one of the more intriguing of which is his relationship with the revolutionary ideals of the post-May of 1968 youth protests. Assayas not only lived through the nascent uprising, he's returned many times over his two-plus-decade career to this time period and to the lives, including his, which it altered. Assayas's 1994 masterpiece, Cold Water, while not in direct discourse with the revolution, is indicative of the adolescent mentality that spread in its wake. A thrilling evocation of youth and independence, the film remains one of the cinema's best portraits of French rebellion. A spiritual successor of sorts to Cold Water, Assayas's new film, Something in the Air, is a more literal interpretation of the times, a semi-biographical tale of ideological youth meeting reality head-on.
Set in a similar era (the early '70s) and featuring two leads with the same names (Gilles and Christine) as the central couple in Cold Water, Assayas's latest sketches the travails of a group of discontent youths spurred on by the spirit of the day, as they stage acts of localized rebellion as outgrowths of their perceived repression. When a prank at their school leads to legal involvement and ultimately arrests, the group splinters, sending Gilles (Clément Métayer) and Christine (Lola Créton) to Italy where their friends Alain and Leslie strike up a relationship while the quartet begin to entertain more logical forms of personal independence. Assayas treats these teens with a respect he no doubt craved in his own time growing up, and as a snapshot of the era, Something in the Air captures that intangible "something" with a natural grace and authenticity. He's a long way from the terrain of demonlover and Irma Vep, films that placed him, along with Leos Carax, squarely among the most critical and daring post-French New Wave filmmakers, but as his career turned toward more mature, patient considerations in 2009 with Summer Hours, he's begun to utilize his medium for more reflective purposes.
This maturation has yielded rewards in the past (Summer Hours is one of the better examples of the modern classicist style, while Carlos bridged these two styles with a swagger missing from most biopics), but here the refined style feels a bit more ill-fitting. The subject matter itself doesn't necessarily require a rebellious aesthetic (see Philippe Garrel's Regular Lovers for an example of a thoroughly lived-in style reflecting the same era with an appropriately intuitive passion), but something about Something in the Air feels oddly disinterested in engaging with the motivations behind the rebellion. Assayas seems more concerned with the characters themselves, and how their lives coincide and speak to the consequences of the revolution. Unsurprisingly, the film's best scene updates a similar sequence in Cold Water where an outdoor party lit by bonfires and soundtracked by psych-rock obscurities plays out as passions flare and the landscape literally ignites with emotion. The sequence accentuates the lack of noticeable verve present elsewhere, where Assayas seems content allowing the characters to mingle and develop without outside agitation. [Slant]