The Fountain arrived with a whimper in American cinemas in November and Australian ones last month, but the faithful have been singing its praises. Sadly, most critics have rejected the film while apparently failing to even pay attention to it. Darren Aronofsky’s long-gestating follow-up to Pi and Requiem for a Dream is one of the most idiosyncratic films of the last few years but never fails to be one of the warmest and kindest in recent memory.
After a more expensive version with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett capsized when Pitt pulled out, Aronofsky pared down the screenplay’s set pieces and preserved its structure and intent. The reduced budget got him a second greenlight with Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, but its debut at Venice last year was so divisive it actually provoked a fistfight! Even now it sits at a perfectly even 50% at Rotten Tomatoes. But blah blah, insert spiel here about great films not being appreciated at the time, Citizen Kane, etc. It’s very likely true though. The Fountain feels so little like anything else that it’s a true original, or perhaps even genuinely ahead of its time. Richard Schickel describes Aronofsky superbly as “one of the few American filmmakers who saw the cinema past as a jumping-off point, not a toy store to plunder.”
Tommy (Jackman) is a cancer researcher now dedicated to finding a cure in order to save his dying wife Izzi, who is writing a book about a conquistador in Maya in 1500. We follow that story through interludes with Jackman as noble Tomas and Weisz as Isabel, Queen of Spain, who sends her conquistador on a mission to retrieve the sap of the Tree of Life, which she hears is hidden in a Mayan city. These two strands alternate that of a bald Jackman floating through space in a bubble with the Tree itself, heading towards a vast nebula. The publicity says that this is set in the twenty-sixth century, although the film never states that. But Tommy and Izzi are the principal focus, as Tommy becomes so determined that he misses out on his remaining time with his finally content wife.
Much has been made of the film being morose, and it’s certainly sombre, but gently and calmly so. It’s ultimately about two people and how they contend with love and death, and the film’s science fiction leanings are far less apparent than I expected, given that the futuristic sequences may not even be real. Regardless, although I’m a genre lover, it’s not the SF material or ethos that is entrancing about this film, despite the breathtaking beauty of the space sequences. Aronofsky takes scenes that are largely between two characters and transforms them into a platform for contemplating primal issues in all their vast wonder, all without losing their intimacy. A close-up on Jackman’s lips whispering reassuringly in Weisz’s ear feels like the most delicate thing ever filmed.
Granted, these characters are not as multifaceted as they could be, especially since they have the film virtually to themselves (Burstyn has oddly taken a purely functional role here that has no depth). Tommy’s drive in the face of despair and Izzi’s kindness and wonder are a little one-note, but they don’t detract for two reasons. Firstly, the performances contain enough nuance – particularly when the three Jackman personas are taken together – that they make these people more than real enough. The hunger with which a frightened Izzi kisses her husband and Tommy’s sobs as he crudely tattoos a ring on his finger add a layer of painful reality that takes these characters beyond stock territory. Secondly, the simplicity ties together with the broadness of the film’s themes. To teeter into the intricacies of a relationship drama would miss the grander boat Aronofsky is sailing us on. That’s not to denigrate the insights that such dramas can offer us, rather that films with larger and paradoxically simpler goals require a clearer playing field, which is why there is so little dialogue in the film. Despite the occasional clunky line, Aronofsky maintains that field, and the result is spectacular.
Jackman and Weisz’s performances must be acknowledged, with Jackman turning in by far his best work. It could be said that he just hasn’t had a chance to stretch like this yet, but his work is worthy of an Oscar in itself. It’s a naked performance of despair and awe. Weisz doesn’t have as much to work with as Izzi, but she convinces us of Tommy’s deep love for her without placing her on a pedestal. They have a tremendous chemistry together, which is a relief as they must anchor the film more than any two leads of recent memory.
They are supported by astounding visual beauty. Libatique’s cinematography, from the snowy panoramas to the starlit darkness of the bubble scenes, is breathtaking, as are the chemical reactions filmed to produce the nebula effects. Aronofsky eschews CGI and literally films a natural process, and it’s stunning. Clint Mansell, in his third collaboration with Aronofsky, delivers a score that ranges from the melancholy to the awe-inspiring while remaining wholly consistent. Some scenes are truly made by the music, tipped over from excellence to greatness. It’s an incredible musical achievement.
Forgive a tangent, but it’s been brought to my attention recently that I like inscrutable films, and I was struck by the statement’s accuracy. However, I’d clarify and say that I adore inscrutable films that I can still sense a logic and cohesion behind, films that are a puzzle of consciousness that have a solution, but possibly more than one. Such films somehow lay bare a fundamental truth without coming close to stating it, like the beauty of a landscape that we don’t need to spell out for ourselves, and when we do the superlatives seem weak. Certain films form this connection for us, and it’s a blissful feeling. Once you’ve finished vomiting, I hope you return to read the rest of this.
Some would contend that appreciating the unfathomable in films merely makes someone a sucker for disjointed weirdness that pretends to have a point but was never meant to, someone who will glean meaning from technical experimentation. Maybe so. Maybe I’m a fool for seeing grandeur in The Fountain or Mulholland Drive or The New World. But if that’s the price for such a great reward, so be it.
And after two viewings, The Fountain still stands as a grand vista of knotted confusion. While the credits rolled, I basked without any concerns, but later the questions shuffled in. If the future sequences are real, how did Jackman’s character get the Tree of Life in a bubble, let alone survive that long? At the climax (no spoilers here), how do certain things appear and certain people suddenly become others, literally and otherwise? Does it even matter? And what is Aronofsky ultimately trying to say, if he has specific statements at all as opposed to setting up an arena for discussion? The Fountain incorporates a lot of religious imagery, from Christian to Zen, and that’s only part of the puzzle. I can understand Devin Faraci’s instinctive desire to write a book about this film, although I wouldn’t know where to begin. And Aronofsky conjures all this up in a mere 96 minutes that never feel rushed. I won’t assume as many have that The Fountain will eventually be regarded as a classic – perhaps not enough people will ever see it – but it deserves to be.