Written and Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz and Ellen Burstyn
reviewed by Sarah Stegall
Some physicists tell us that there is no such thing as time, that it is an illusion produced by our brains. Rather, they say, everything happens at once, and we only perceive it sequentially. Time is merely an artifact of existence and experience. Perhaps this is part of the concept that powered writer/director Darren Aronofsky’s (Requiem for a Dream, Pi) latest effort, The Fountain. Like origami, this film folds in on itself, with three stories spanning a thousand years overlapping like a Moebius strip, interleaving plane to plane until the film unfurls into one loosely unified fable of love, loss, tragedy and spirituality. The Fountain is no movie for skeptics or cynics; they will probably be impatient with its experimental narrative structure and repeating imagery. The multilayered plot is built on a simple notion: a pair of lovers follow one another through various incarnations ranging from medieval Spain to some far future, soulmates determined to surpass death, cycling in and out of bodies but always together. The idea is that when God cast mankind out of the Garden of Eden for tasting the Tree of Knowledge, He hid its twin, the Tree of Life, in the New World. When discovered by Franciscans working for Queen Isabella of Spain (Rachel Weisz of The Constant Gardener), she sends her trusted Conquistador Tomas (Hugh Jackman of The Prestige) to secure it, promising to be his Eve if he is successful. It takes him over a thousand years to find the true meaning of the Tree, during which he and Isabella/Izzi cycle in and out of conjoined incarnations, linked by love, a ring, and a dream of immortality.
Several ideas not in current intellectual fashion feed the dark energy of this movie: eternal love, spiritual transformation, the idea of soulmates. Romantic conceits such as this in the Age of Irony are usually confined to art house movies; indeed, The Fountain resembles nothing so much as an art house film that has fallen into money. And oh, what they’ve done with that money—layer on layer of gorgeous images. Honey colored star fields, bleak snow-filled valleys echoing despair, a tree that truly looks like a Tree of Life, the filth of the Spanish Inquisition and the claustrophobic humidity of Mayan jungles. Symbols permeate this film: a ring is given in 15th century Spain, lost in a 21st century surgical prep room. Hugh Jackman drives a car through a sporadically lit tunnel towards a city of light and hope, then rides a horse down a torch-lit road towards a city of flame and tyranny. Life literally bursts forth in Tomas, ink becomes blood and dead lovers become trees. Not since Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come have I seen such imagery infuse a movie.
The ubiquitous Hugh Jackman, who appears in no fewer than six films this year, uncorks a sobbing, glowing, tragic, erotically charged performance perhaps matched only by his charismatic turn in The Prestige. Alas, this performance threatens to overwhelm his scenes with Rachel Weisz, whose attempts at subtlety sometimes merely flatten her portrayal of the doomed Izzi. To be fair, however, her role is basically to act as numinous avatar, not as a real human being. Her role ranges from regal Queen to plucky gamine, but she is never given the incandescent scenes Jackman sears through. Their chemistry is just barely enough to convince. Still, Jackman’s performance was powerful enough to persuade me that his shaven-headed Zen monk was in love with a tree, without making me break into giggles. Supporting actress Ellen Burstyn (Wicker Man) turns in a subdued portrayal of a harassed but sympathetic lab director. Clint Mansell’s ethereal and evocative score provides an emotional carrier wave for the film so powerful it deserves Supporting Actor billing.
Six years in the making, this film still needs more editing to lift it out of several shallow plot holes; brain tumors, calligraphy, monkey research, biopharmaceutical research, nebulae and eternal life intertwine in a sometimes chaotic mix. Despair and hope suffuse this movie like brandy soaks a rich cake, and like that cake, a little ambiguity may go a long way with those viewers looking for a more conventional narrative. One is left with some questions: for example, why is a movie about the quest for the Tree of Life called The Fountain? Why, in a movie about a love that transcends time, does Queen Isabella keep reappearing to insist that it’s all about saving Spain from the Inquisition? Another rewrite was probably in order here, but I have to admire Aronofsky’s courage in giving us so many angles on the same story. When so many movies are composed by connecting the dots, it is refreshing to see even a flawed attempt to rearrange the dots into something novel and visionary. If you read books as much for the joy of beautifully cascading prose as for the story, if you enjoy the intertwining streams of improvisational jazz, if you like your science fiction more Stanley Kubrick than George Lucas, you may appreciate The Fountain, a poem brought to the screen which, if sometimes more beautiful than profound, never fails to enchant. The Fountain is destined to be a cult movie, admired as much for its ambitious flaws as its resonant triumphs.