The Fountain

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.

6 thoughts on “The Fountain

  1. Sebastien says:

    Ok, finally saw the film, and I’m torn.It is indeed a spectacular film, but also a bit of a failure. I know what he’s trying to do. It’s cool he is. But he doesn’t quite make it, not in my book.Part of the problem I have with it is that, despite taking something like 6 years to make, it feels rushed. Perhaps they eschewed principal photography days to save money for those spectacular effects, and that’s what it feels like. Dialogue moments, save for 2-3 scenes, look like they were filmed for TV. Another thing. Yes, the score is awesome. I’ve been listening to it for months before watching the film. However, Aronofosky uses music way, way to fucking much, and it undermines a lot of scenes, in my eye. The scene where Jackman gets out of bed because he can’t hold in the sobs any longer is made much, much less poignant because of an inexplicable urge to shove in a sweeping score… amateur shit.So these things distract me from putting the “masterpiece” label on it. The Fountain is a very very well made bad film. I read a review that conclude that, in the end, it was much better to watch a spectacular failure such as this than a successful moronic film such as is on offer constantly these days. I agree. I had fun watching this. I wish there were more.Incidently, I did not find the story that confusing. I don’t understand why people get all fucked up about it. I guess Aro left it wide open to interpretation, but it’s actually quite simple.So unless I’m mistaking, here’s what’s happening. The past is obviously fake. It’s the book Izzy is writing in the present, which is the only real timeline. The book mirrors her own predicament, that she will die, unless her lover can find a cure. She asks Jackman to finish the book for her, even buying him a pen, and constantly saying “finish it”, in order to help him come to closure with her death. The future is his own ending, appended to the story.Of course, it’s much more simple to think that when Izzy dies, Thomas finds the tree, keeps himself alive for milleniums until humankind has perfected space travel, then goes off on a trip to the nebula to get spiritual enlightment… but that’s way to simplistic (and stupid) for Aronofosky.Anyway, my 2 cents.

  2. Jack Reed says:

    I very much see what you mean about how Aronofsky handles the one-on-one drama. In itself, it’s not particularly stellar, but for me it somehow synched up with the larger ideas in play to the point where its averageness was forgivable, particularly due to the calibre of the performances.As for the effects, I doubt they were a big drain on the budget since they were achieved by filming chemical reactions – there was allegedly not a frame of CGI in the film.Was that score really sweeping in that sobbing scene? I don’t remember finding it intrusive. It’s true that Mansell’s scores – particularly in Requiem – seem more high-powered than is the norm for these types of flick, but I felt that the non-melodic, occasionally electronic approach prevented the score from getting too tear-jerky and doing too much work for the audience.The past is indeed merely Izzi’s book, and your interpretation would be ideal if not for the fact that Tommy’s own ending to the book appears to be the conquistador finding the tree of life and getting plantified, not the future itself, which is interspersed with this ‘ending’. The sequence even includes a shot of the future Tommy as the Mayan god (can’t remember the name). I think the big ambiguity, as far as I can tell, is in how the future and Tommy’s ending are connected. But correct me if I’m wrong. I agree though that the future merely being Tommy’s future would be lame and, more to the point, overly simplistic. Fountain uses SF tropes, but isn’t really SF. I must admit though that because of its ambition, and how much more satisfying, as you say, an ambitious failure is than a mediocre success, that I may be less critical of it than I would other films. But it did hold up excellently on second viewing, so it’s a keeper for me anyway, I reckon.Thanks for backtracking and writing about it.

  3. Sebastien says:

    Yeah, I’ll be watching this one again. I seem to remember a few little tidbits that were not making 100% sense at the time, and I’m betting they are “clues”, inasmuch as clues may be present in this work.Regarding the score, don’t take me wrong. I love the score. But there are times when music is needed, and others when it’s not. Seeing Thomas sob for the first time, in fact completely collapsing from it, barely able to hold it in, would have been oh-so-much-more-fucking-powerful-and-gutwrenching if Aronofosky had allowed it to just, well, be. Of course, Aro is making shitloads and working with a-list actors, and I’m directing and editing the official corporate video of a fucking clinic somewhere in the south, so what do I know, huh.But still, look at the big guns from the past and notice their approach to music. Fuck, Hitchcock didn’t use one single not in The Birds, and the film is that much more ominous for it. Look at The Conversation. Imagine if they’d make that film today, there would be a John Williams score on it for sure.Look at European films, actually. Notice how scenes are way more organic. There are no score to tell you what to feel.I imagine Aronofsky had to do a few changes as per studio. Although he did use lots of sweeping music in Requiem, I don’t remember him using much in Pi.. I’d have to research that though.Anyhoo…

  4. Jack Reed says:

    Oh, I didn’t take that as a diss of the score. I know exactly what you mean – music is frequently overused, particularly by hack composers providing formulaic accompaniment to studio product. And a lack of music is indeed frequently more powerful – The Wire is a great example of this, like The Conversation (LOVE that flick). I just didn’t think the usage in The Fountain was fatal at any point, although if I love a score I tend to be a lot more forgiving of excess…And hell, big-time doesn’t mean shit for the integrity of creative choices – you just haven’t had your Pi-style breakthrough! It’ll come. Maybe you should max out some credit cards like Kevin Smith did :DAlso, you’re right that Aronofsky probably did have to make some concessions to the studio that we didn’t hear about. I reckon there’s a Biskind-style book to be written about the production of this movie, or at least a DVD doco. The Fountain doesn’t seem to have been nearly as contentious a process as, say, Heaven’s Gate, but there’s probably still some juicy stuff in there. He wants to do a second DVD for Criterion, but even then it’s doubtful he’d be able to tell the full story.

  5. Sebastien says:

    Max the credit cards… heh.. done. But on the wrong stuff.Anyway, once you’re over, the obvious incessant movie talk we’ll be having might be the push I need to start shooting shorts, or who knows, more.Fucking BSG’s got me on a Sci-Fi train of thought lately…

  6. Jack Reed says:

    Sounds great to me. I’ve been very curious to see how you’d tackle narrative filmmaking. And SF can be done surprisingly cheaply if it’s all about the ideas – a movie called Primer was produced for a few thou and is allegedly an astonishing bit of time-warping SF.Plus, we can max out my credit card too. 😀

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