How We Remember

Gilberto Perez writes about the films of Terrence Malick

The family is moving out of town, and as the car drives away the mother looks back at the house they’re leaving behind. ‘The only way to be happy is to love,’ she says in voiceover. ‘Unless you love … your life will flash by.’ We cut to her point of view and, through the car’s rear window, see the pale green two-storey house receding down the quiet street. Then, unpredictably, we cut to a shot from inside the empty house: through the middle of three tall bay windows, past a green tree overhanging the road, the car can be seen disappearing into the distance. The home returns the mother’s gaze; in a kind of shot/ reverse shot, the glance of farewell is reciprocal. This occurs towards the end of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), which centres on a family in a Texas town in the 1950s. The use of voiceover is characteristic of Malick – no other filmmaker has been so devoted to the device. Also typical is the personified yet unascribed perspective, the sense we get in the empty house of seeing through the eyes of someone unseen, some house spirit watching the car go.

Malick’s first movie, Badlands (1973), is narrated by a girl of 15, Holly (Sissy Spacek). She and her dog are in her wrought-iron bed as she starts telling the story: ‘My mother died of pneumonia when I was just a kid. My father kept their wedding cake in the freezer for ten whole years. After the funeral he gave it to the yardman … He tried to act cheerful, but he could never be consoled by the little stranger he found in his house.’ Wherever there is discrepancy between a narrator and the implied author there is always irony. In Holly’s case, some take this irony as an invitation to feel superior to a benighted girl, but the condescension or even scorn towards her that they impute to the author is their own. Holly’s adolescent sensibility, her forlorn romantic fantasies, her reliance on trite embellishments and reluctance to go into unpleasant things, her desire to tell the truth and still acquit herself as best she can for her part in what she knows to be a frightful tale – all this the author renders with sympathetic accuracy. Malick has compared Holly to Nancy Drew or Tom Sawyer as an ‘innocent abroad’. Badlands was loosely based on the case of Charles Starkweather, who went on a killing spree in Nebraska and Wyoming in the late 1950s together with his teenage girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate. In the movie Holly meets Kit (Martin Sheen) in a South Dakota town: ‘Little did I realise,’ she tells us over an image of her twirling her baton on the street, ‘that what began in the alleys and back ways of this quiet town would end in the badlands of Montana.’

When her father (Warren Oates) finds out she’s been seeing a man ‘ten years older than me and … from the wrong side of the tracks, so called’, he punishes her by killing her dog and having her take extra music lessons. At the red-bricked music school she looks out of a Palladian window whose tripartite design – two smaller windows at each side of an arched central one – is amplified in the tripartite composition of the image, with two more windows on opposite sides of the wide screen accompanying the conjoined three at the centre: Holly seems to be held prisoner by traditional architecture. This image of confinement dissolves to Kit, who’s in an open field where he’s gone to speak to her father, who is at work painting a billboard advertisement for feed and grain. It depicts a farm in bright colours, green most of all, with assorted plants and animals, gabled roofs under a pretty sky; a square hole at the bottom of the unfinished picture lets the actual sky show through, no less pretty in its deeper shade of blue, though the expanse of land under it lacks the lustrous green of cultivation. Holly’s father flatly tells Kit he doesn’t want him around, and as the young man takes his leave, we cut to a distant long shot of the painter and his billboard, now dwarfed and decentred by the big sky. It is as if the landscape were inspecting the image on the billboard, as if the world in its uncontainable vastness were finding the human attempt to represent it wanting. And Malick would not exempt his own attempt: his images may be more realistic than the painter’s billboard, but he invites us to wonder whether they’re really so different from it, to note how his images too are dwarfed and decentred when set against the real thing.

Visually as well as verbally Malick is an exacting craftsman. And verbally as well as visually he liberates his films from the tyranny of the plot. Voiceover is the device he uses to embroider events with reflection and also to fill in narrative gaps, releasing the images from their usual subordination to the story so that they can flourish in splendid autonomy. Few scenes in Days of Heaven (1978) are allowed to unfold for long or to reach any dramatic resolution: instead we get bits and pieces of scenes arranged into a mosaic of shifting impressions. A train crossing a high bridge near the beginning, with nothing but a blue sky and white clouds in the background, seems headed for heaven; seconds later the narrator is talking about the flames of hell. This is a film of continual interruptions, breaks in perspective and mood. One moment we are asked to respond to the grandeur of nature, the next to the arduous labour of migrant farmhands, then to the characters’ personal feelings, their romantic yearnings or petty schemes; then, suddenly, a circumstantial detail will cut a scene short so that it amounts to no more than a glimpse. As the drama escalates, a flying circus with clowns and a belly dancer descends from the sky; as love seems about to prevail, hate furiously takes over and a plague of locusts inflicts rampant destruction.

‘This farmer, he didn’t know when he first saw her or what it was about her that caught his eye. Maybe it was the way the wind blew through her hair.’ Again in Days of Heaven a young girl is the narrator, this time an even younger one called Linda (Linda Manz), who tells us the story of a rich farmer (Sam Shepard) and his love for Abby (Brooke Adams). The film is set in the early 20th century on a farm in the Texas Panhandle. Abby and her lover, Bill (Richard Gere), are migrant workers who arrive on the train together with Linda, his little sister; because people will talk, Abby passes as his sister too, and the farmer feels free to court her. Having overheard a doctor say that the farmer hasn’t long to live (‘maybe a year’), Bill prods her to marry a man he sees as their chance to rise in life. The film’s central drama, or melodrama, concerns this triangle of Bill, Abby and the farmer, with Linda as an observer: ‘This farmer, he had a big spread and a lot of money … Wasn’t no harm in him. You’d give him a flower, he’d keep it for ever.’

There may be ‘no harm’ in the farmer, but his farmhands get low pay for long hours of hard work. Bill may be mean in trying to take advantage of the farmer’s love for Abby, but he loves her too, and ‘he was tired,’ as Linda explains, ‘of living like the rest of them, nosing around like a pig in a gutter. He wasn’t in the mood no more. He figured there must be something wrong with them, the way they always got no luck.’ Days of Heaven deals with the tangled interplay between the personal and the social, the attempt to manage the social through the personal, the typically American ambition to become a winner, to lift yourself out of the group and leave all those losers behind. But unlike John Ford or Jean Renoir – whose Toni also tells a story of tragic love among migrant workers – Malick conveys scant sense of the group, the living relationships, concordant or discordant, that bind people together. Like the outlaw couple in Badlands, the characters in Days of Heaven are alienated from a human community that seems hardly to exist at all.

The frontier in Westerns is the landscape in which the American nation was formed. While people and even towns may look small against the awesome natural setting, the part they play on that epic stage lends them dignity and, in turn, the landscape acquires human significance. But while the landscape in Days of Heaven is surpassingly beautiful – Néstor Almendros deserved his Oscar for the cinematography – human things look out of place in it, whether the transient, oppressed farmhands or the farmer’s lofty Victorian house, sitting alone like some presumptuous ornament plumped in the middle of a vast field. Here people are inconsonant figures in an elemental landscape that stands apart from history, beyond human ken.

‘I think the devil was on the farm,’ Linda comments in voiceover as the farmer’s suspicions that his wife is not Bill’s sister grow. And when the locusts arrive the fire used to combat them spreads through the farm like the flames of hell Linda spoke of. Isn’t she an uneducated child mouthing superstitious notions she’s picked up from those around her? Isn’t her narration to be taken ironically? Yes, but it was the author, not the character, who set up a parallel between the triangle of Bill, Abby and the farmer and the biblical story of Abram and Sarai’s sojourn in Egypt, where they passed for brother and sister; and when Pharaoh took the fair Sarai into his house, ‘the Lord plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai Abram’s wife’ (Genesis 12:17). What this parallel means isn’t clear – it makes most sense as an ironic way of registering the difference between modernity and biblical antiquity – but clearly the author intended it. The wrath of God is unmistakable in the flames that engulf the personal drama just as it nears a resolution with Abby’s emerging love for the farmer and Bill’s imminent departure. Violent death ensues for both men. Divine punishment seems extravagantly out of proportion to ordinary human sins. The mixture of melodrama, epic of the land and religious allegory doesn’t quite come off.

*

Malick didn’t make another movie for twenty years. He was part of what is often seen as the generation of the 1970s, a transitional decade when American filmmakers enjoyed unusual artistic freedom after the collapse of the old studio system and before the reassertion of commercial Hollywood that began with Jaws and Star Wars. During his long absence Malick became something of a legend, and so much prestige accrued to the reclusive director that virtually every able-bodied male actor in Hollywood wanted to play soldier for him when he returned to make a war movie, The Thin Red Line (1998), which he adapted from James Jones’s novel about the Battle of Guadalcanal.

A predatory crocodile slides and slowly sinks into green water to the sound of an ominously sustained chord. Then, over images of a jungle, with sunbeams peering through thick foliage, an unidentified voice asks in a Southern accent: ‘What’s this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself, the land contend with the sea? Is there an avenging power in nature? Not one power, but two?’ Presumably that killer crocodile at the start of The Thin Red Line symbolises all the killing in war, which the film portrays ‘without qualification’, according to Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit in Forms of Being (2004), ‘as a massive manifestation of human evil, and the only question asked about it is how it got into the world. Any historical answer to the question is simply ignored.’ But to ignore history and see war in the heart of nature is to see it as inevitable, irremediable, however deplorable you find it. Is that the view Malick takes? He may pay little attention to the historical context and consequence of the battle he depicts – you wouldn’t know from his movie that it was the first major Allied offensive in the Pacific War – but this doesn’t mean he imputes it to some evil power transcending history. The crocodile, though frightening, is surely not evil, nor does the voice say it is. And, again, we mustn’t assume that a character’s voiceover speaks for the author.

In this movie several characters speak in voiceover. Whose voice is it that speaks of war in the heart of nature, not one power but two? It’s the first and the last voice we hear, the most prominent and the hardest to identify. Almost all commentators have attributed it to Private Witt (Jim Caviezel), who is a Southerner and a leading character in the movie, but to my ears the voice doesn’t sound like his. The subtitles on a DVD of the film (an option provided for the hard of hearing but useful for the hard to understand) attribute it to a minor character, a private called Train who is also a Southerner, and that seems right. A more recent DVD approved by the director has no subtitles, and I guess Malick didn’t want them because they would make it too easy to tell one voice from another.

Voiceover, which is normally used to take us inside a character’s head, is here a way of connecting one character with another. Much more than in Days of Heaven, Malick gives us a sense of the group, the soldiers in C Company – C for Charlie – sent to fight the Japanese on the island of Guadalcanal. They are a disparate group, lacking in the patriotic spirit and soldierly solidarity usual in war movies. They face death together in the greenest of battlefields, but the fear visible on their faces isolates more than it unites. One soldier keeps the fear at bay by remembering his wife, the cherished images of her he summons to mind a private haven of marital bliss far removed from the deathly present. An ambitious colonel (Nick Nolte) clashes with a humane captain but proves himself right by victory in battle. Witt dreams of a life close to nature among the Melanesian islanders, while Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn) holds the view that each man should look out for himself, had better make himself an island. And yet a sense of connection between these men comes across, in no small part because of the collectivity of voices, inner voices linking soldiers outwardly at odds, voices confusable with one another because the soldiers are in some way at one, if not in their views, then in their contradictions. The hardened colonel’s voiceover reveals a man as afraid as the rest of them: ‘The closer you are to Caesar, the greater the fear.’ And near the end, passing by the graves of soldiers, Welsh gainsays in voiceover his professed cynicism and egoism: ‘If I never meet you in this life, let me feel the lack. A glance from your eyes, and my life will be yours.’

When the men of C Company arrive in Guadalcanal, the camera advances through a field of green grasses, with trees in the background and blue mountains beyond. It feels as if we are one of the advancing soldiers, any one of them, for the travelling shot goes on for a while before a cut retroactively identifies the soldier whose point of view we’ve been sharing. The camera, in cinema, has built into it the perspective of an individual observer; the conventional point-of-view shot personifies that perspective by ascribing it to a character in the story. The Thin Red Line often personifies the camera while leaving the ascription of point of view dangling, which has the effect of identifying the unidentified individual observer with the soldiers as a group. Neither assuming authorial omniscience – in this film, as Michel Chion has noted, ‘there are no shots, or very few, that are not at the level of the mud, the water, the ground, the human being in the grass’ – nor limiting us to one character’s consciousness, Malick instead sets up a play of consciousnesses, making us feel that the camera’s perspective could belong to any one of them.

From the grassy field the soldiers proceed to a rainforest, and there too the camera moves as if it were one of them, looking up at the sunlight shining through the tall fronded trees. ‘Who are you to live in all these many forms?’ asks the Southern voice of Private Train. Cut to a pair of brightly coloured parrots, and then to a stand of bamboo, where the camera’s skyward look tilts down to soldiers making their way through the thicket of thin trees. ‘Your death that captures all,’ Train continues. ‘You, too, are the source of all that’s going to be born.’ While it is understandable that many would mistake this voice for Witt’s, it is fitting that a voice so difficult to identify should be heard over images that seem to be taking the perspective of an unidentified soldier. And it is striking that before long Train’s voice is heard, ruminating on ‘courage, the contented heart’, over flashback images in the mind of the soldier remembering his wife: one man’s inner thoughts, another’s visual memories. ‘Maybe all men got one big soul,’ Witt wonders later on; this is his voiceover for sure, heard as he looks at the wounded in battle, the blood in the water: ‘All faces of the same man, one big self.’

Dying is one half of war: the other half is killing. Many of the men of C Company die in the extended fight to capture a hill from the enemy, but those who reach the top proceed to kill, and kill rampantly, horribly. It is then, during the massacre of the defeated Japanese, that Train is moved to ask: ‘This great evil, where’s it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doing this? Who’s killing us?’ It’s curious that Train asks who’s killing us when his fellow soldiers are doing the killing. Is it because he knows them, knows they’re not evil men, though they are perpetrating this great evil? He’s identifying with the killed, identifying the killers with the killed. The suggestion, borne out by the images, is that men kill in war out of fear of being killed, that the fear of death made acute by the experience of war leads in turn to the inflicting of death.

The crocodile, symbol of Train’s Manichean war in the heart of nature, is caught by the soldiers and tied up: in nature, though maybe not in human war, the fear of impending death can be subdued. This initiates a series of reversals, contravened views. The man clinging to memories of his beloved wife receives a letter from her telling him that she has fallen in love with another man and asking for a divorce: ‘Oh, my friend of all those shining years, help me leave you.’ Witt looks again at the Melanesians he idealised (‘I seen another world’) and now finds contention, pain, human skulls inside their huts. Love will not save you from death, may not even last you for long in this life; the Melanesians are not the sweetness and light you dream of. Yet the images of the man and his wife in their shining years, of Witt immersed with the islanders in their idyllic clear waters, embody longings impossible to dispel. They’re not false images, they’re an aspect of the truth; if not the answer, they’re part of the question.

Fear is as central to Jones’s novel as to Malick’s movie, the fear all soldiers feel and each in his own way tries to deal with. Unlike the novel, however (and like Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or Absalom, Absalom!), the movie gives the characters not just sentiments and opinions but philosophies of life. These mostly unschooled, regionally accented, often ungrammatical and inconsistent philosophies, which some critics snobbishly belittle, are presented in the movie as an eloquent colloquial poetry we are to take quite seriously: living in the world, facing death in it, surely qualifies a person to express a worldview. In Malick’s introduction to his translation of Heidegger’s The Essence of Reasons – Malick taught philosophy at MIT for a year before turning to the movies – he wrote that the world, in Heidegger’s sense, ‘is not the “totality of things” but that in the terms of which we understand them, that which gives them measure and purpose and validity in our schemes’; and he added that we ‘share certain notions about the measure and purpose and validity of things’ but ‘sometimes we do not, or do not seem to, share such notions.’ In The Thin Red Line the soldiers put forward several such notions, which they may or may not share among themselves and we may or may not share with them. A movie constructs a world, gives the things it depicts measure and purpose and validity in its schemes, but The Thin Red Line offers various worldviews without deciding for us which serves us best to understand things.

Near the beginning Witt recalls his mother’s death:

I asked her if she was afraid. She just shook her head. I was afraid to touch the death I seen in her … I heard people talk about immortality, but I ain’t seen it. I wondered how it’d be when I died … I just hope I can meet it the same way she did, with the same calm. ’Cause that’s where it’s hidden, the immortality I hadn’t seen.

And Witt does come to meet his death with something of the same calm. Because he sacrifices himself for his fellow soldiers he has been construed as a Christ figure; because he makes his death his own he can also be seen as an existential hero. Both readings see him as the exception that sets the rule, the one soldier whose story really matters. Those who attribute Train’s voiceover to Witt suppose that at the end Witt is speaking from beyond the grave, having presumably attained immortality. But on the boat carrying the men of C Company out of Guadalcanal, Train talks to another soldier just before he speaks in voiceover, which means it should be easier to identify his voice: ‘Darkness and light, strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind, the features of the same face? Oh, my soul, let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made, all things shining.’ This is an ordinary man speaking, almost anonymous, neither Christ-like nor a hero who has transcended fear and embraced his own death. Some movies arrange the meaning of things around a central character, but not this one.

*

Although earlier examples can be adduced, I believe the term ‘jump cut’ was first applied to Godard’s Breathless (1960). As Patricia (Jean Seberg) rides in a car with Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), cuts skipping forward in time keep returning to her back profile, seen from the same angle at different points along the ride: these cuts jump because, since so much stays the same, the sudden changes in the background, the light, the position of her head, are made all the more manifest. Cuts from one actor, one detail, one scene to another may be abrupt but do not jump that way. What makes a jump cut jump is the continuity that sets off the discontinuity. Often any abrupt cut is called a jump cut, but only a cut that maintains enough sameness for the difference to jump on the screen should be so called. Abrupt cuts abound in Days of Heaven, but only in Malick’s recent work – availing himself of digital editing, as some have noted – does he put jump cuts to salient, systematic use.

In The Thin Red Line Malick uses jump cuts when depicting the memories of the soldier who recalls his wife. As he advances up a grassy hill on a lone reconnaissance mission, a flashback transports us to the couple in their bedroom. The jump cuts that punctuate the scene find sameness and continuity above all in her face as it glows with desire, now on one side of the screen, now on the other, now gazing at her husband, now held in his hands, now tightly beside his face with her eyes closed. The cuts express the soldier’s fixation on his wife, whose jumpily reiterated image seems continually at risk of slipping away.

In The Tree of Life, which took three years to edit, jump cuts multiply and enter into intricate shot arrangements[*]. In the opening the mother as a little girl looks out of a window; there is a jump cut to a somewhat different angle – which has the effect of insisting on the image – as we hear her adult voice: ‘The nuns taught us there are two ways through life, the way of nature’ (we see the little girl holding a lamb in her arms), ‘and the way of grace’ (we see a field of sunflowers out of Dovzhenko’s Earth). We may think of sunflowers as nature and tenderness to baby animals as grace, but Malick seems to be proposing the opposite, or suggesting that the line between nature and grace may not be so easy to draw. ‘Grace doesn’t try to please itself,’ the mother’s voiceover continues. ‘Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.’ Fade to the now adult mother (Jessica Chastain) on a swing, her shadow joining the shadow of trees on the green lawn, the camera swinging back with her and then forward – until a jump cut suddenly shifts to a boy now on the swing, the mother and a dog beside him. Cut to the father (Brad Pitt) and two other boys inside the house; jump cut to the mother bringing food to the table, where she and her husband and their three boys now sit. ‘Nature only wants to please itself,’ her voiceover resumes. ‘Gets others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them, to have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it, when love is smiling through all things.’ In this dichotomy – which is the nuns’, the mother’s, not necessarily the author’s – the father represents the way of nature and the mother the way of grace, of love smiling through all things.

‘They taught us,’ she goes on, ‘that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end’ – and we cut to a shot from her point of view of one of her boys, the one who will die young. Cut to water falling down a waterfall, then to a view of the sun and the sky through the spreading branches of a big tree: ‘I will be true to you,’ she says, ‘whatever comes’; and in the next image, from years later, what comes is a man delivering a telegram with the news of her son’s death. Two successive jump cuts mirror her startled response, and an abrupt cut to the father at work interrupts her sobbing and transforms it into the deafening sound of an aircraft motor roaring as he picks up the phone on which, we infer, she has called him with the news. Distraught, she walks down the street with her arms crossed, and the camera moves alongside her and then turns around to face her, letting us glimpse the father following her. She turns away from the camera to face him, but a jump cut puts us right back in front of her: her distress is palpable, something that must inescapably be confronted. Inside the house – not the same house where we saw the family at table a minute earlier but a better-appointed later residence – she walks past her dead son’s room, but the camera goes in and takes a look at his paintbrushes and his guitar from a personified mobile perspective that could perhaps be hers at some other time. Then, through the window, we see the postman on his daily round. He isn’t the man who delivered the telegram but he does call him to mind and thereby situates inconsolable sorrow in the context of everyday life and its cyclical time.

The Tree of Life is Malick’s first portrayal of everyday life, a family melodrama without much drama, as if the unremarkable conflicts and muted apprehensions of family life had all along harboured the tragedy announced in that initial telegram. ‘The whole film might be a poem,’ Geoffrey O’Brien wrote, ‘of deep grief diffused over a lifetime … the effect is of seeing a memory staged, indelible in the realism of its details but edited and compressed over time … the world as processed by the mind, with finally only the bright bits magnetised by emotion remaining to flash against darkness.’ The oldest boy, Jack (played as a boy by Hunter McCracken and as an adult by Sean Penn), can be seen as an autobiographical figure: Malick was himself the oldest of three boys growing up in Texas in the 1950s, and a few years later one of his brothers died young, apparently by suicide. Is Jack, then, the central consciousness, the recollecting mind? Maybe, but The Tree of Life does not, unlike The Thin Red Line, stay with the point of view of ‘the human being in the grass’: it ranges grandiosely, cosmically, over sunflowers and dinosaurs, days and eons, primordial life and human birth, children playing and cells pulsating, fiery stars and interstellar space. Like the eye of God, you could say, but perhaps more like a prayer to God in the form of images, a prayer for the lost brother that can, after all, be ascribed to Jack’s consciousness.

Like his camera movements, and often jointly with them, Malick’s jump cuts personify the camera. Personified camera movement imitates the human gaze moving through space; Malick’s jump cuts imitate the mind’s eye looking back in time. How do we remember things, how do they come back to us? Not as dramatic scenes but as retrieved moments, not in coherent narrative sequence but in bits and pieces. We remember places, the context but not so much the story; we remember faces, the expression but not so much the event. We remember parts more than wholes, and try as we might to fit the parts together, discontinuities remain. Moments and details keep coming back to us as images in their own right, a little different each time as they shift in the mind: now the mother on the family swing, now the brother in her stead. The jump cut is the device Malick uses to evoke this process of recollection: the soldier’s memory of his wife in The Thin Red Line, Jack’s memory of his childhood in The Tree of Life, and in To the Wonder, his most recent film, the memory of love.

*

Lovers on a train – unnamed until the end credits, they are Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck) – open To the Wonder. ‘Newborn,’ she says in subtitled French voiceover, ‘I open my eyes. I melt … I fall into the flame.’ She gushes like that much of the time. Malick, as always with his voiceovers, keeps a certain ironic distance but assumes no superiority. Shaky digital images – shot, we discover, by Neil on his mobile phone – register the first rush of his and Marina’s love, and announce from the outset that this film – otherwise shot in luminous 35 mm by Emmanuel Lubezki – is to be in the mode of personal memory.

Even admirers of The Tree of Life have been cool towards To the Wonder. I imagine it embarrasses people to see love depicted so earnestly, and to see it connected with a sense of the divine. Romantic elation and religious faith haven’t been much in fashion of late, let alone a link between the two. Apart from Marina, the most vivid character in To the Wonder, and the speaker of the other principal voiceover, is a priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem).

Marina and Neil fall in love in France. ‘We climbed the steps,’ Marina says in voiceover as they visit the abbey of Mont Saint-Michel on the coast of Normandy. There is an inserted shot of their hands clasping. As they arrive at the cloister, she finishes the sentence: ‘to the wonder’. The tide is coming in as they leave, and the muddy sand around the abbey gives way under their feet – the suggestion is that their romance does not rest on solid ground. Cut to a view out of a high window in a Parisian apartment, where Marina’s ten-year-old daughter asks her why she is unhappy. The question surprises us – so far Marina has been all smiles – and we realise how little we know of the story, how elliptical these glimpses of the past are. Having just found out that Marina has a daughter, we now learn that Neil is returning to the United States and isn’t proposing marriage. ‘I don’t expect anything,’ Marina tells him. ‘Just to go a little of our way together.’ And the three go together to Oklahoma.

‘I’ve been thinking what to do with my future,’ Linda muses at one point in Days of Heaven. ‘I could be a mud doctor, checking out the earth, underneath.’ That’s Neil’s job in To the Wonder. He is an engineer responsible for checking Oklahoma’s earth and water for oil pollution. Like the spongy ground around Mont Saint-Michel, the endangered Oklahoma soil is both actual and metaphorical. In a ditch, on a riverbank, Neil finds pollution. We hear Marina’s voice: ‘What is this love that loves us? That comes from nowhere. From all around.’ Her question accompanies lyrical images of flowing water shining in the sun, beautiful yet polluted. The irony lends her question a metaphysical tone: how can love shine in a tainted, a fallen world?

Father Quintana wrestles with a related worry, a persistent sense that God is withdrawing from him: ‘Intensely I seek you. My soul thirsts for you. Exhausted. Will you be like a stream that dries up?’ He doesn’t answer when a woman bangs on the door. She is a haggard addict who may want money for a fix, one of the poor he ministers to but doesn’t love: ‘My heart is cold. Hard.’ His duties bring him into contact with the needy, the imprisoned, the frail and the maimed: images of human imperfection, the imperfections that make it hard to love people. ‘Show me how to love you,’ Marina says. ‘Show us how to seek you,’ the priest says. Not just the wonder but the difficulty of love is the theme of To the Wonder.

Marina is a dancer, and like the mother in The Tree of Life, another figure of love, she keeps gambolling and twirling about. Some find her irritating, and she’s meant to be a bit much: we can understand both Neil’s enchantment with her and his reluctance to marry her. But her dancing is continually interrupted, broken down into fragments: it represents not the actuality but the memory of love. Nowhere else in Malick’s films are jump cuts more deftly managed and combined with camera movement to achieve the effect of a retrospective gaze, a mind’s eye reaching into the past.

If the whole film is a montage of memory fragments – ‘a kind of unframed flashback,’ as the critic Peter Bradshaw put it – whose memories are we seeing? Like Jack in The Tree of Life, Neil may be taken as Malick’s surrogate. We stay with him when Marina, her tourist visa expiring, returns to France with her daughter. We see him on the sidewalk watching them drive away, jump cut inside the house to a camera shot that follows him out into the yard, jump cut closer to him as he looks at the car in the distance, jump cut back inside the house to a shot of his lone figure silhouetted against the light. We see him at work and get glimpses of him with Marina that can only be memories flashing through his mind. We also see him with another woman, Jane (Rachel McAdams), but then Marina speaks in voiceover, addressing him: ‘You told me about her … Someone you’d known in your youth.’ Even after Marina has gone, when the images we see appear to represent Neil’s consciousness, we hear her voice. Once again Malick gives us a play of consciousnesses. The memory fragments sometimes seem to belong to one character, sometimes to another, but are best ascribed to an indeterminate, floating subjectivity. An objective account transcending individual sentiment in favour of social and material reality was the point of the Soviet montage style: the dazzlingly omnipresent camera in Vertov, the intricate, abrupt succession of images in Eisenstein, the poetic parallel cutting in Dovzhenko. But Malick’s montage of recollections, whether of the wife in The Thin Red Line, the Texas childhood in The Tree of Life, or just about anything in To the Wonder, assembles sharply personal impressions. Yet the fragmentary and elliptical rendering attains a kind of universality precisely because so much of the story is left out, giving us space to project onto Marina and Neil’s intense, failed romance our own memories of intense, failed romances.