The best cinema extends beyond mere entertainment and engages the audience with big ideas and provokes them with a thoughtful message. Then occasionally you see a film that transcends even that, by making the viewer to contemplate their place in the universe. Films can be a potent force for shaping ideas about our role in the grand scheme of things; recently Life of Pi examined man’s relationship with God through suffering, whilst one of the choicest quotes from Beasts of the Southern Wild had the 6 year old lead observing “that I am a little piece of a big, big universe…” Cinema can be a mirror making us look at ourselves and ask what it is we put our faith in. Undoubtedly not all films will make you ask questions like this, but it’s always rewarding when they do. Two films in February question what it is we live for, grappling with big, metaphysical concepts and confronting the audience with intimidating words like ‘purpose’ and ‘eternity’.
To The Wonder, the latest by director and genius Terrence Malick seems to be a film about frustration, populated by people who are stretching for something that is just out of reach. It opens with a couple who visit a church in Mont St. Michel, the eponymous wonder, and then spend the rest of the film striving for some of the bliss and joy they found there. Yet their ambitions are thwarted by the male lead Neil (played poorly by Ben Affleck) and his inability to commit. Neil’s struggle to dedicate himself to the relationship suggests that he lives first and foremost for himself, thus blocking any chances of a happy marriage with Marina (Olga Kurylenko). Marina seeks solace in the church, but the priest seems to have lost faith in his own teachings. The central couple’s wedding does not take place in a church, but in a courthouse where criminals are the witnesses. It’s as though everyone is reluctant to throw themselves wholly into anything, due to fear and lack of trust; a sentiment reflected by the restless camera cutting away quickly from each shot.
The ecstasy of love and the joy of knowing God are never fully realised in To The Wonder, either in the lives of the characters or in the very make up of the film. It’s shooting for the sublime, but falling short. Tellingly, the names of the characters are only revealed in the credits, as if the film is deliberately detached from their story. Although the camera shows the intimate moments of their lives, it’s difficult for the audience to truly invest in them. Just as Neil is reluctant to open himself up to someone else’s life, it feels as though the film is reluctant to truly open to the audience; it never quite takes us to the wonder. It is a remarkably straightforward film compared to the cosmic ponderings of Tree of Life, but it’s emptier, too, simply a story about people with too much faith in themselves, who hurt others because of it. For all the aspirations to divine significance, God feels as distant as the rest of the characters.
Straightforward is probably the last word you would use to describe the multi-narrative, time and space spanning epic Cloud Atlas. There’s too much plot to describe here in one go, just go and watch the film whilst it is still in cinemas (which won’t be for long). Across the six plots that form all three hours of this ambitious epic there are linking images and motifs that make the theme explicit: everything is connected. From a personal perspective, I believe in one life here on earth and one eternal life after that, but Cloud Atlas presents something far closer to reincarnation, suggesting that souls can be trapped on earth for eternity, reliving moments both good and bad. Each strand is told with a different style, from pulpy 70s thriller to Ealing comedy, but they are all inextricably linked by theme and recurring actors. One character’s journey – a slave-clone forced to work in a fast food outlet who rebels against the government – ends with her declaring that “our lives are not our own,” and the message is clear; there is more to our lives than the present moment, or what we see and feel and earth.
Whilst I don’t buy into ideas about reincarnation myself, Cloud Atlas provokes questions about eternity, and the significance of our actions. A composer writes a piece of music, the ‘Cloud Atlas Sextet’ that has recurring importance in the other stories. His creation, and his story, affect the lives of others for future centuries. Although many of the stories end bleakly, it’s a far more positive outlook than something like To The Wonder. Cloud Atlas has a perspective that is a lot less self-centred than To The Wonder, which is an almost purely sensual experience. In To The Wonder, all that seems to matter is the moment, how you feel then and there and what relationships with other people can do for you, personally. But relying on feelings will betray you, especially as, if Cloud Atlas is to be believed, this life is just a small part of something a whole lot bigger.
There’s still that element of frustration, though, as one character writes “I believe there is a better world waiting for us…” but he doesn’t quite know what that looks like. Yet in another story, set in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, one character resolves to help someone else, defying the devil (‘old Georgie’) to display courage in the hope of something beyond his island, even though he can’t see or understand it. That sounds a lot like faith, to me.
Yet society today seems to promote the importance of how you feel here and now ahead of anything beyond our own personal experience. Ultimately in a secular culture that is quick to reject God (and thus, the concept of eternity), there isn’t any need to live beyond the immediate present. Something about that refrain from Cloud Atlas seems pertinent, though: our lives are not our own. It’s worth considering Cate Shortland’s harrowing film Lore as a conclusion. This reduces the big, metaphysical ideas of Malick and Mitchell to one intensely personal story of a girl whose parents were high ranking Nazis, and how she copes when the war ends. She spends most of the film convinced that the ideology she received from her parents is irrefutable, and that conflict makes up the core of the film. With hindsight, however, we as the audience can see that the belief system passed on to her is abhorrent. Whilst it’s ridiculous to compare you, the reader, to Nazi sympathisers, what a film like Lore should do is provoke you to think about your own ideology, to question your belief (or lack, thereof).
Perhaps the cumulative experience of these films would be that you start to think about the longer term significance of your actions and long term doesn’t mean next week or next year, either. The pursuit of happiness is a misleading one because ultimately it won’t lead to anything eternal. It’s also a pursuit that places your faith entirely in yourself, another empty experience as you are more likely to let yourself down than anyone else is. Cinema is here to suggest that you can start looking beyond your own experience and wonder, even if you only wonder it for three hours of running time, whether your life is not your own, whether there’s something more than your life than the seventy three or so years your heart will be beating.