June 17, 2009 / Filmwell
Criterion’s May release of Wise Blood (1979, John Huston) makes available the flawed but fascinating artistic meeting of two uncontested American masters, novelist Flannery O’Connor and film maker John Huston.
April 3, 2013
Curator Magazine posted my review of To The Wonder last week. It was a delight to write for them. But more could have been said about the O’Keefe orchid and succulent shots, the shot focus on the mirror image of the unicorn in one of the medieval “Lady and the Unicorn” tapestries, the Lorica of St. Patrick, the largo of Gorecki’s 3rd, and a few other bits of aesthetic flotsam making cameo appearances in Malick’s near feverish vision of these characters’ plight.
But the brief shot of the unicorn is particularly fascinating given the scope of the film. We catch a glimpse of it in quick, sweeping impressions of their visit to the Cluny while still in Paris. The lens briefly settles on the center of the below tapestry, which is one of six representing different senses (though the last one has proven difficult to interpret). The tapestry taken as representing “sight” is unique in that it represents the unicorn in the very lap of the Lady, rather than at a remove, repose, or in waiting. It occasions reflection on knowing, beholding, and the relationship between mind and object.
The entire set of tapestries has provoked a wide range of responses. Some see a representation of chastity (the Lady) and ideal sensuality (the unicorn). Others look at them through the lens of context, as they may have been commissioned for an actual matrimonial event or as a more abstract celebration of courtly love. And others, as with the “Hunt for the Unicorn” and various medieval manuscript illuminations, transpose the Lady and the unicorn into a Mary/Christ typology.
What is so interesting here relative to To the Wonder is that all of these tropes are later present in the film. The moral contexts of sensuality, the procedural gravity of matrimony, the particularity of Christ as latent in medieval unicorn imagery – these all eventually emerge as thematic centers.
In Koresky’s enlightening review at Reverse Shot, he notes that for the first time in Malick’s cinema we have:
“…a direct addressing of its characters’ specifically Christian faith rather than a vague outline of a nondenominational spirituality.”
The film is stunning in this aspect, and I can imagine a few instances during which viewers not steeped in Christian theology or scripture may miss the specificity of reference – e.g., in our post-Christian context a reference to “Romans” may not actually trigger as a letter written by Paul that became part of the New Testament canon. In my review at Curator Magazine, I considered this reference to Paul’s statement that “all things work together for good…,” which:
“is a curious biblical reference for the context. Romans is often read through a Reformation lens as a formula for salvation, but it is better read as a theodicy that includes this frequently sentimentalized idea about “all things working together for good…” This ancient letter to the Roman church is more a demonstration of God’s righteousness, his right-ness, a justification of the seemingly moving target of his favor… As a theodicy of the present, To the Wonder is a broken formal vessel through which glimmers the spatial and historic presence of God’s rightness despite the revelatory inadequacies of our inert storylines. It is a presence worth navigating.“
But the unicorn image scanned at the beginning of the film provides an interesting context for all this specifically Christian stuff. Just as the unicorn image is subject to multiple angles of analysis that span a range from basic human experience to mytho-poetical renderings of theology, so does Malick’s film attempt to yield the same dual sense of being both indeterminate and full of interconnected possibilities. I argued with Tree of Life that Malick is essentially a good bible reader. A similar argument applies here, in that we see Malick incapable of separating the divine from the material, the biblical reference from the human register.
Or we could say that To the Wonder is a Christian film in a way very few are, as all these Christian images, spaces, and scriptural fragments are the formal container of the physical and emotional processes of the film. I do not know how far I want to push that, other than saying it is an interesting (and very Lindbeck) way to consider the process of filmmaking out of a particular theological orientation.