Sunday, April 19, 2009
Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain was an ambitious project, a major detour for the director whose previous two features (Pi and Requiem for a Dream) were decidedly small, introspective personal dramas. The Fountain is instead a time-spanning, mythological epic, a grand statement about tragic love and the desire to conquer death, in which stories from different times and different levels of reality — some of them undeniably "real," some of them possibly fiction or fantasy — interact to tell the story of the enduring love between Tommy (Hugh Jackman) and his dying wife Izzi (Rachel Weisz).
There are three layers of reality in this film. In the most tangible and focused of these, Tommy is a research scientist desperately trying to devise a treatment for brain tumors before his wife dies of the one affecting her. He performs surgery on a succession of primates, finally in desperation turning to an obscure medicine derived from the bark of a South American tree — a concoction that miraculously reverses the ape's aging but seems to leave its tumor untouched. This story is presented as the memories of a different, later version of Jackman's Tommy, a shaved-head mystical initiate floating through space in a bubble he shares with a patch of fallow earth and a dying, dried-out tree, the fabled tree of life from the Garden of Eden and also presumably the same tree that had such a stunning effect on that long-ago Tommy's research. Finally, there is a third story in which Jackman is a conquistador loyal to Spain's Queen Isabel (played by Weisz, naturally), who faces a rebellion from the evil, self-flagellating Grand Inquisitor (Stephen McHattie). The Queen protects a great secret, the location of a mythical tree in South America that may grant eternal life to all who eat of its bark, and she sends Jackman's conquistador off on a mission to locate the tree and bring its secrets back to her. This story is told by Izzi herself, a writer whose final book, left unfinished when she dies, is based on Mayan mythology in an attempt to come to terms with death. She leaves the final chapter unwritten, asking Tommy to finish the book after she's gone.
The film itself is in many ways a multi-faceted attempt to fulfill Izzi's request, just as the conquistador's tale recounts his ill-fated attempt to fulfill the Queen's orders, to return to her as Adam to her Eve and live forever together. The time-jumping structure repeatedly returns to the same junction points, as though trying to rewrite the story, to change the narrative in order to reach a happy ending. It's building towards a myth, towards the achieving of eternal life, and yet ultimately this happy ending folds in on itself, as Jackman's Tommy reaches towards a very different kind of enlightenment: the realization that death is a part of life, that death cannot be conquered and should instead be accepted, that what matters is not struggling violently against the end of life but enjoying the moments we have. The story ends, not with the tree of life in the Garden of Eden, not with a grand romantic gesture to achieve an endless love, but an acceptance of transitory, earthbound love. Life and love will end eventually for all of us, but they are no less sweeter for their brevity. This is what makes this film especially tragic, and especially intelligent: it incorporates our myths, our desperate need for stories about eternity, but it acknowledges that these are just our ways of dealing with death, of denying what we all know, that everything has an end.
Aronofsky has crafted a sublime, complex structure here, a wonderfully evocative expression of the human anxiety over death, which has over time migrated from the realm of myth and religion into the strivings of science to conquer disease, as though the human race is forever working towards eliminating our transitory status in life. Thus, Tommy's desperate efforts to save his wife exist along a continuum that stretches from his past incarnation as a conquistador in search of a mythical tree of life, to a future incarnation as a man who has eaten of that tree and thus lives forever.
This is a gorgeous film, achingly romantic and heart-breaking, and sumptuous in its visual style. Working on a tight budget after an earlier version of this film (slated to star Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) broke down, Aronofsky eschewed CGI and instead created organic effects by photographing chemical reactions in petri dishes. This technique gives a raw, dazzling beauty to the sequences of Tom floating through space, his form silhouetted in black against a field of pin-prick stars, or drifting into the heart of a glowing gold nebula that represents the Mayan underworld. It's also appropriate for a film about the processes of life and death that so many of its images from outer space evoke the swift foldings and fissions of cell divisions, of molecular structures forming and dissolving. It's as though the inside of the human body, the microscopic foundations of life and biology, have been writ large on the blank page of space itself, the micro blending into the macro, just as Tom and Izzi's story represents larger ideas about mortality and human impermanence.
The ethereal, haunting beauty of these images is matched by the pulsing, repetitive music composed by Clint Mansell for the Kronos Quartet and the Scottish post-rock combo Mogwai. The muscular, Krautrock-inspired rhythms of this music continually return to the same motifs over and over again, synced with the ouroboric enfoldings of the narrative. As the film goes on, the insistent drive of the music becomes overpowering, its cycling of motifs accelerating even as the tempo of the editing speeds up, blending together the film's three distinct stories into one, orchestrated by the man floating through space towards a final confrontation with mortality. It's at this point that Jackman's character definitively rewrites these stories, finally providing them with the endings that Izzi's book had lacked: all three endings constituting an acceptance of death as the endpoint towards which all our stories inexorably move.