Discovery

by Stanley Kauffmann | May 12, 2013

photo credit: Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Right from the start of his career, it was clear that Terrence Malick was out to challenge the conventions of the art to which he was dedicating himself. Even that first film, Badlands, showed some unconventional ideas about time. His subsequent films, varying in success, all showed an impulse to see, to realize, in an individual way. Now comes his sixth film, To the Wonder, which takes his challenge even further, not for mere novelty but because he has found other ways in which he can imagine.

The story can be outlined, though it is not his chief interest. An American, Neil, is in France with a Ukrainian divorcee, Marina—and eventually her small daughter—moving toward Mont Saint-Michel, often called “the wonder of the western world.” They then go to America, and their affair cools. Marina meets a priest with whom she at least feels kinship. Neil re-meets an old flame, Jane, and is again enthralled—until he learns that Marina is back in France, in poor spirits. He finds her again near the Wonder.

Malick gives this story just enough attention to make it hold. The dialogue, sometimes in subtitles, is minimal. What is most affecting is Malick’s intent. He plainly devised the story to give him a series of panels for the expression of feeling. I can’t remember many films in which love, the sheer transformations of love, has been more movingly conveyed than in the three panels: Neil and Marina, Neil and Jane, Neil again with Marina. What is even more striking is Malick’s technique. It is as if he had modeled it on pointillist painting. Imagine each point as a film moment of, say, twelve seconds, and you have the sensation of a film which is largely composed of such moments. Most of those moments have some kind of motion in them, persons or camera, and you are presented, not with flickers but with a cellular whole. The abbey, fields, a supermarket, a beach, fields, flocks of horses or bison, village streets, city streets—they all become part of an analyzed and re-assembled world in which intensity of feeling is possible and strong.


Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
"TO THE WONDER"
Olga Kurylenkoas Marina and Ben Affleck as Neil.

It would be almost eccentric to say that one would like to see all or many films presented this way. But note that the performances of Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, and Rachel McAdams flourish in this ambience and one is grateful for the experience.

In 1885 the young Dr. Sigmund Freud left Vienna for Paris in order to study with the French physician Jean-Martin Charcot, the so-called father of neurology. Freud adored his teacher, saying he “is one of the greatest physicians, a genius and a sober man” who “simply uproots my views and intentions. After some lectures I walk away as from Notre Dame, with a new perception of perfection.” A French film called Augustine has Charcot as one of its two main characters. He often conducts experiments in front of a small group of physicians. The name Freud is never mentioned, but it is easy to imagine that Freud is among the group, turning his mind to the field of psychiatry.

Augustine herself is a servant in a wealthy home. One evening, while serving dinner, she suddenly collapses, then goes into a violent seizure. She is taken to Charcot’s hospital, where he soon learns that this pretty woman, nineteen years old, is in some ways underdeveloped. She has never menstruated, has never heard of menstruation. He begins treatment of her for what he calls ovarian hysteria.

In the following days we see some of the treatments. He marks her nude body into areas, then, often aided by hypnosis, he tries to induce various movements. She complies as she can. When she is aware, she is conscious only of wanting to get better. We are aware that we are witnessing early attempts, crude as they are, at psychiatric treatment. We also see the beginnings of what would come to be called transference. A crucial occasion comes that will determine Charcot’s finding. He puts her into her trance, then seizure. He suspects that it is not genuine, that she is performing it in order to help him. She flees, and he pursues her.


Courtesy of Music Box Films
"AUGUSTINE"
Vincent Lindon as Professor Charcot.

The writer-director Alice Winocour has wanted to explore the beginnings of psychiatric treatment and takes us into some of them, into a largely non-physical treatment of physical ailment – a shadowland of illness. She creates a kind of subdued excitement of discovery. Vincent Lindon persuades as the cautious but confident Charcot, and Soko (her single name) is agonized and hopeful as the venturing Augustine. A film in which a frequently dimmed screen helps to bring enlightenment

What do you do if you have played the lead in four James Bond films, are edging into your sixties, and would like something different from what you have been doing lately? Well, if you are Pierce Brosnan, you go to Denmark and play, in a romance, a British tycoon. The title of the story is Love Is All You Need, the director is a talented young woman named Susanne Bier, the cast of Danish and other actors is fine, and the director’s screenplay gives vitality to a basically familiar form. Result: sufficient pleasure.

Philip, a widower, has won the affection of his friends by the way he has plunged into work to assuage his grief. His son Patrick is about to be married at Philip’s villa in Amalfi. The bride is Astrid, daughter of a local hairdresser, Ida. Ida has just had a mastectomy, which has altered her view of things. All of the characters are sufficiently introduced so that their foregathering with relatives and friends at Philip’s villa hints that we are about to see another film about a family party with an unexpected effect. Here the details are so incisive that—except for the case of Ida’s husband, who is shoved in and out of the story as Bier needs him—we are quite convinced that everything is happening to people, not characters. In large measure this is due to Ida, who is played with moving truth by Trine Dyrholm, an actress of appeal and resource.

But the force of Brosnan is considerable. His performance is exactly what is needed, a mature man of quiet power and secrets. But beyond his acting, it is the very presence of a world-renowned star—always known yet always implicit—that gives this little Danish film special weight. It has often happened before—the appearance of a world star in a competent film of another country—and it always has the same force, an extra bond of authority to what is going on. We can’t help thinking that if Brosnan is in this picture, it must have something to it. And—this time, anyway—it has.

Bier gives her film a fit air of discovery as it goes. She leans a bit heavily on punctuation with shots of nature: When a scene builds to a climax, we expect a shot of the Amalfi coast or a sunset to cover transition to another time or place. But her work with her actors is understanding and sound. Her film is like a neat package of somewhat familiar but welcome incidents.

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