The Fountain


Whatever you may think of this film or Darren Aronofsky’s talents as a film maker, you have to admire his audacity in making such an ambitious movie that so blatantly fails to comply with the conventions which we have come to expect from cinema. It spans 1000 years and tells three stories about a man’s fear of his and his loved one’s mortality. The central story is set in the present day and focusses on Tommy (Hugh Jackman), a doctor frantically searching for a cure for his partner’s, Izzi (Rachel Weisz), terminal brain tumour, when he stumbles across the magically regenerative properties of a Guatemalan tree. We also see frequent flashbacks and forwards to what are basically re-imaginings of the same story — to Tomas, a conquistador searching for a hidden Mayan temple and the tree of life it contains to return to the embattled Queen Isabella of Spain so they can live together forever as man and wife, and Tom, travelling through space with the now dying tree of life to take it to a dying star in the hope of breathing life back in to it.

Having just outlined the plot, I should make clear that this is not the type of narrative driven film to which we are so used. It is more a poem or a meditation on what Tolkien in the Silmarillion describes as the Creator’s gift to man: his mortality. As such to describe it in purely linear terms (even to the extent that such a thing is possible) largely misses the point. Rather it is like an epic piece of music with several movements and recurring motifs, each section only revealing its full power when heard together, allowing the interplay between the parts to be appreciated. Or an abstract painting which doesn’t explicitly explain to its audience what it is depicting yet still leaves them with a powerful emotional response. Thus as well as the repeated characters across the stories, there are many other recurring images: the wedding ring which Tommy loses is the same one Isabella gives Tomas as the promise of her hand in marriage upon his return with the Tree of Life; the story of the Mayan underworld, Xibalba, as represented by the nebula to which Tom will travel to resurrect the tree, being told by Izzi to Tommy as they sit star gazing on their roof; the close up shots of the hairs on Izzi’s neck as she sleeps in bed and the similar picture of the hairs on the bark of the dying Tree in the future. As always with a story whose meaning is not blatantly stated, it is tempting to try to join the dots and find the one true meaning which the writer-director has so cunningly hidden from us. But such an effort is doomed to be futile, as are attempts to construe the relative reality of the film’s various threads: did the story of Tomas & Isabella take place or are they just the fictional characters in Izzi’s book and is Tom merely the hallucination of a grief-stricken Tommy, his physical self five hundred years in the future, or his reincarnation?

Each of Aronofsky’s three films so far have focussed on their main characters crippling obsession, be it numbers, drugs or mortality. Perhaps this recurring theme is a manifestation of his own compulsion to push his own art form in new and interesting directions. In this movie, the intensity and aggression of his earlier work is replaced by a sense of beauty and melancholy. The film is beautifully shot, especially the future scenes with Tom and the tree floating alone through the vastness of space. Clint Mansell once again provides a brilliant soundtrack, perfectly matching the mood Aronofsky is trying to create.

As with any movie with such an ambitious aim, it is unavoidably flawed. It can be laboriously slow and even once you realise this isn’t going to be your standard cineplex fare, there are times you wish Aronofsky could just get his meditation over and done with a little faster. Of the three stories, the present is the least compelling and unfortunately where we spend the most time. The other scientists are annoying and a distraction from what is essentially an epic love story. As has become typical of his movies, Aronofsky ends his film with the climatic downward spiral of his protagonist, but with the bigger issues addressed here it ends up being more an anti-climax when, inevitably, the meaning of life isn’t revealed.

But despite these failings this is still a remarkable film. While most film makers seem content to trot out the same tried and true ideas and techniques, Aronofsky can be relied upon to challenge his audience. While not a masterpiece, the Fountain pushes cinema in new and interesting directions and does it sufficiently well that I can’t wait to see where he goes next.


3 Responses to “The Fountain”

  1. After being dismissive of the film, I feel I should back myself up. And there’s a few things I want to talk about. Spoilers, of course, follow.

    I agree with you that the present day segments are the most dull. While to call them cliched might be too strong a word, they certainly felt like a story I’d been before. I found the other doctors’ shock at Tommy’s obsessive desire to save his wife with the cure he’d been struggling for all his career a bit odd. Er, surely it was obvious this was where he was heading? I couldn’t believe the old lady hadn’t seen it coming.

    The conquistador plotline, however, was regularly thrilling.

    I agree with you that the links between the narratives were better for their ambiguity (though I liked to think that Tommy lived for millennia and that the tree had grown through Izzi’s corpse, I wouldn’t like it spelled out).

    It depends ultimately on one’s tolerance for dull stretches of film. I’m inclined to believe that a more heavily edited version of The Fountain would be less dull and hence better. And yet, the film is concerned with the weary tread of existence, so perhaps that wouldn’t help it. I don’t know.

    I think it was a mistake to have Hugh Jackman snog a tree. I feel that very strongly.

  2. It sounds like there were similarities in style between this and Pan’s Labyrinth – both having fantasy plots running parallel to the real world plot, or is there no resemblance?

  3. I forgot to reply to this.

    They’re actually very very different. For a start, the fantasy plot in Pan intersects with the real world plot — I wouldn’t have said it was any more parallel than a normal subplot. The three plots in Fountain have echoes between each other but no linear connection.

    The tone’s completely different. Pan is focussed on storytelling, naturally enough for a fairy tale based film. Fountain isn’t so much, or at all. Pan is horror/fairytale/mystery/adventure, Fountain is arty/long silences/interconnected weirdness.

    If anything’s reminded me of The Fountain recently, it was Battlestar Galactica’s ‘Maelstrom’. Take from that what you will.