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Terrence Malick proves it is possible to make a film beautiful enough to contain the beauty of Olga Kurylenko!

It was completely by accident that the last film I watched, Now You See Me, concluded in Paris and this one begins there. That commonality aside, I was happy to move from schlock to quality. À la merveille (the French title) resists being summarized; the happenings are minimal, and this alone sets it apart from plot-driven garbage. At the center of this film is a couple, an American man (Ben Affleck) and a French woman (Kurylenko), who try to keep the ecstatic flame of love burning despite multiple challenges of both practical and emotional varieties. Wait, Wikipedia says Kurylenko’s character is Ukrainian, something I’d guessed at but wasn’t sure; there might be some clear evidence I missed, but it doesn’t matter, since the film isn’t really about any of those details. This is about the ebbs and flows of passion.

Every last shot of this film is gorgeous, even those showing impoverished neighborhoods and wasted construction landscapes. The camera swoops in close to its subjects, drops down low to show the ground brush, sweeps up to capture the panorama. Often the shots drift past the characters to capture light on the horizon, or some other aesthetic feature of the environment. A few shots I’ll always remember: the tide coming in at Mont St. Michel, the placid gazes of a herd of bison, Kurylenko walking along the desolate sidewalk of strip mall America. And yet, as might already be clear, this film doesn’t deny the real from bursting up to interrupt ideal beauty. Poverty, ecological ruin, barrenness, estranged children, infidelity, crises of faith…these things arrive to break the spell of love. And yet, love remains, though changed.

There is very little dialogue, with almost the entire film being narrated by lyric monologues in the form of addresses. Each character says, “you…” and speaks to the beloved directly, as if in a letter. This works very well in the case of Javier Bardem’s character, a Catholic priest who suffers from doubt and addresses himself to God, seemingly absent. This also helps to limit the amount that Affleck speaks, which I think was a good choice. As a brooding, taciturn figure he can get by, but things might have faltered if they had tried to make him much more expressive. Rachel McAdams also performed better than I would say is her usual, particularly thinking back to her recent role in Brian De Palma’s (crappy) Passion. Kurylenko is the one to watch, and not just because she is so gorgeous. She is excellent in her show of playful abandon when love reaches its peak, likewise when the bottom falls out and her being becomes split between despair and intense affection. She really steals the show in every scene, even when she holds less of the camera’s focus. On a related note: I think Malick did an amazing job of showing how her playful, youthful behavior can shift from being perceived as delightful in the early stages of love to childish and irritating when love loses its sheen. She stays lovely, but we can start to see how one could fall in and out of love with her.

Over all: gorgeous, and yet with no easy resolutions. It reaffirmed my decision to live in Europe however. I need to stop watching films with Olga Kurylenko, though (but she speaks French and speaks it well!).

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