Friday, September 9, 2011

The Fountain

There are several options to reviewing Darren Aronofsky's 2006 curio THE FOUNTAIN. The safest would be to discuss it merely in technical terms: the unique (and uniquely derived) special effects, the creative camerawork, the strong acting. Arguably, such an approach is the only quantifiable one, as subjective interpretations wade into treacherous terrain, teacherous because no two visitors can agree on the landscape, much less why anything is happening (if indeed, anything is happening at all).

THE FOUNTAIN tells one or three stories, depending on your take. Present day we meet Dr. Tommy Creo (Hugh Jackman) as he experiments with unorthodox surgeries on primates. His use of an untested tree bark intrigues his collegaues and concerns his supervisor (Ellen Burstyn, somewhat underused here). Meanwhile, Dr's wife Izzy (Rachel Weisz) is reconciling the end stages due to an inoperable tumor, and thus we learn why the doctor is so relentless in his methods. This central narrative is a bit surreal, a standard story of illness adorned with Izzy's mystical outlook and some unorthodox lighting choices for a hospital/OR. Aronofsky always infuses his films with restless creativity; in THE FOUNTAIN that restlessness matches the drama.

Izzy is writing a book called "The Fountain", a 16th century tale of an oppressed Spain during the Spanish Inquisition. Tommy becomes engrossed in its pages one night, reading of Tomas (Jackman), a conquistador commissioned by Queen Isabela (Weisz) to find the Tree of Life mentioned in the Book of Genesis. Finding the Tree is believed to spark the cessation of fighting for the Queen's throne. There are some spear wielding Mayans to dispatch before the magical tree sap can be tasted. Aronofsky opens THE FOUNTAIN with this scenario, disorienting us for awhile until we learn of the framing device.

There is also, in the year 2500, a bald spaceman named Tom (no relation to David Bowie's or Peter Schilling's "Major Tom", I assume), floating about in a bubble that contains the Tree and a garden. Tom is inching toward a faraway galaxy, or nebula, that will somehow free the soul of Izzi from the tree, I think. We also periodically see a ghost of Izzi that disturbs Tom (also Jackman). As a further link to the other scenes in THE FOUNTAIN, said nebula is known as Xibalba, a mystical cave from Mayan mythology.

The Creos' contemporary tale receives the most running time in THE FOUNTAIN, perhaps adding weight to the argument that this film has only one story, with the 16th century merely existing in Izzi's book and the spaceman perhaps Tommy's dream of life after Izzi. I found myself also wondering if Aronofsky was suggesting some sort of reincarnation with Jackman's three characters. Tomas eventually samples the Tree's lifeblood and...well, see for yourself. Tom, some 500 years later, has lived and lost and had years to reflect (he also has tattoos on his limb for reference, much like the rings in a tree trunk reveal age). The film's tagline does say "What if you could live forever"?

But what is Aronofsky truly saying? It all comes back to death. It is the end, but also the portal to life, if in a very different form. Christians believe death leads to either eternal life with or eternal separation from God; the actual embodiemnt of form after death subject to much debate. Death is what makes us human. Tommy Creo doesn't share his dying wife's acceptance; "death is a disease, it's like any other. And there's a cure. A cure, and I will find it."

THE FOUNTAIN's screenplay is a labyrinth of history, theology, psychology, metaphysics, science, and sociology. There are elements of Buddhism (particularly in the 2500 scenes) and Christianity vying for relevance among the themes of clinical science and legendry. I'm sure it all ties together more thoroughly than I was able to discern. The most successful and intriguing parts of this film deal with the most enduring of motivators: love. Not merely "love is not separated by death" but a co-existence. Tom has Izzi in his mind for centuries, but is she also physically, spiritually in the tree? Is that why her apparition appears? Is that the mind fighting the soul, or are they trying to occupy the same plane?

As you can see, THE FOUNTAIN is an invitation to post-film discussion. While it played, I admired its beautiful photographic palate, its special effects not born of CGI, but in a petri dish via macrophotography. The actors sink their teeth into their parts. Jackman is better here than in most anything else I've seen him; Weisz is luminous as a woman who learns to take comfort in her mortality. Her dynamic, in a very oblique way, reminded me of Peter Greenaway's A ZED AND TWO NOUGHTS, a film which had lead characters utterly fascinated with decay. THE FOUNTAIN isn't a fifth as grim, but similiar themes are touched upon.

Does love conquer all? The finale of THE FOUNTAIN suggests of a circle of life (and love) that is unrestricted by time, or death. Is it moving? Intellectually satisfying? Yes and yes, but not to the degree which I was hoping. While I was also reminded of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY at times, THE FOUNTAIN did not quite take me beyond the infinite. That does not mean it is not a trip worth taking at least once. Though revisiting this film may improve appreciation.

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