Venice 2012: Terrence Malick's 'To the Wonder' Premieres, Confuses Audiences

Star Olga Kurylenko says Malick, who was absent from the premiere, wrote the part for her without even knowing her: "I think he’s psychic.”

VENICE – Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder premiered in-competition at the Venice Film Festival Sunday without Malick or most of the cast on hand for the event, leaving the film’s producers to explain a series of puzzling promotional decisions for the film.

The film artfully gives glimpses into a series of relationships, centering on an intense but ultimately troubled love story that starts in Paris and ends in Oklahoma.

Interest in the film on the Lido was high, with four screenings of the film on Sunday filled, and hardly a seat to be found a the press conference. The press conference took place without the reclusive Malick, protagonist Ben Affleck, or supporting actors Rachel McAdams, a former Affleck love interest in the film, and Javier Bardem, who played a Catholic priest.

REVIEW: To The Wonder

Female lead Olga Kurylenko, a former Bond Girl from 2008’s Quantum of Solace, and Italian actress Romina Mondello, who had a small but important role in the film as a Kurylenko confidant, were on hand to answer questions. In the end, though, most journalist queries fell to producers Nicolas Gonda and Sarah Green, both of whom worked with Malick on Tree of Life and are associated with the director’s upcoming project Voyage of Time.

For example, press notes about the film noted that Affleck’s character was named Neil and that he was a writer by trade, and that Kurylenko’s character was born in Ukraine -- none of which appeared in the film. It also emerged that Affleck and Kurylenko were asked by Malick to read works from Russian authors Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy, for reasons not apparent in the film.

“Knowing these things gives movie viewers who read the notes, or those who read the articles from the journalists in this room, more context on the characters,” Gonda said.

Regarding the question of why McAdams, who has a relatively small part in the film, appeared on the film’s poster, while protagonist Kurylenko does not, Green noted that there was no official poster for the film.

“That’s the one photo we released around a year ago, but it’s not the poster,” Green said. “We haven’t made a poster yet.”

Gonda said that Malick skipped the Venice premiere -- the first ever for a Malick film -- because he was busy working on Voyage of Time and another as-yet unnamed project. Affleck and Bardem are also said to be too busy on new projects to have made the trip to the Lido.

“I think it’s clear that the appetite for new ideas is there,” Gonda said. “We were fortunate to see with Tree of Life that people embraces many aspects of the story, and I think that will be the case for To the Wonder as well. People are hungry for new ideas.”

Both Kurylenko and Mondello raved about working with the iconoclastic Malick, with both speculating that the 68-year-old director might have some kind of psychic connection with his actors.

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“He knew exactly who I am without even speaking to me, and he wrote the part for me based on that,” Kurylenko said. “I think he’s psychic. It’s scary.”

Like Malick's Tree of Life, which precedes it, much of the emotional narrative is contained in images: a red rose blooming in a snow-covered church garden, booted feet sinking into the muddy tidal pools.

"He would tell me, 'Throw away the words, don't speak, move them,'" Kurylenko said. "Sometimes silence is stronger than words. I think that is what is remarkable about him. He is able to tell you the story, to give you the emotions, through the body, through the silence. ... You don't need the words. The message is still perceived, you still feel it in your gut."

It remains to be seen whether moviegoers will have that kind of a connection with Malick’s latest esoteric effort. First-day viewers of the film admitted to being confused by aspects of it – the Italian press reported that the audience whistled in displeasure at the end of one screening -- while critics praised the imagery but gave mixed reviews to the narrative. Todd McCarthy from The Hollywood Reporter, called To the Wonder a “sometimes beautiful, dramatically inert evocation of remembered moments from two intense but ultimately unharmonious relationships.”

The film does not have a U.S. distribution deal inked yet, while 01 Distribution, the film’s Italian distributor, would also say the film would be released in the winter months. “This seems like a cold-weather film,” 01 Distribution’s Paolo del Brocco said. The company’s web site lists a Dec. 14 release date.

The world premiere of To the Wonder is the second high-profile premiere of a U.S.-made film from a director with a film in the 69-year-old Venice festival for the first time: Saturday saw the premiere of The Master from Paul Thomas Anderson.

The festival runs through Sept. 8.