Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Fountain

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.


Carson Lund said...

It's great to see someone champion this film, as critics came down on it so heavily upon its release. They often described it as pretentious or inchoate, which I disagreed with, and this review synthesizes my feelings toward the film.

I think perhaps it very well could have been rambling, but as you mentioned, the wonderful score sort of binds everything nicely. Aronofsky's denial of CGI also makes this film extremely intimate, a far cry from pretentious.

"The micro blending into the macro": top notch writing.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Carson. I think a lot of the time critics are skeptical about films as obviously ambitious as this, films that really reach for something big. It's a whole lot easier to call it "pretentious" than to actually engage with its sprawling majesty.

Joel Bocko said...

This was indeed an ambitious film, but I found it a very disappointing experience. The dialogue and interactions between the lovers felt flat, forced, and unconvincing, and hence the love story - the linchpin of all the whole movie - just didn't work for me. It was actually kind of uncomfortable watching, knowing how much potential was there and how little of it was tapped - like looking at a massive deflated balloon.

However, I did like the visuals (I thought the ending was outstanding and taken on its own, almost justified the whole movie) and since I don't usually care for CGI (which I'm sure I presumed I was watching) your explanation of Aronofsky's effects was interesting. My CGI-hatred remains pure!

I'm ambivalent about Aronofsky at the moment. There was a time when I considered him far and away my favorite director of his generation, and Requiem for a Dream a masterpiece to stand alongside Mulholland Drive in the decade's cinema. But increasingly I've looked back to find him heavy-handed and humorless. That said, Requiem undoubtedly works on its own terms while, based on my initial viewing, I suspect that The Fountain does not work on its own or any other terms. I have not see The Wrestler yet, for whatever that's worth.

Ed Howard said...

I thought Weisz and Jackman had great chemistry, and the script did a fine job of establishing the love between them, as well as the despair of Jackman's character at losing her. I was very moved by the portrayal of their relationship. Different strokes, I guess...

I think Aronofsky's talented, there's no denying that, but he's often heavy-handed, with Requiem being the prime example. I certainly don't hate it as many do, but it's the movie of his that I like the least. The Wrestler is quite good, though; a very deliberate attempt to get back to small-scale storytelling after the grandeur of The Fountain. I wouldn't be surprised if Aronofsky someday becomes a truly great filmmaker, but in the meantime he keeps making at the very least interesting movies.

Jason Bellamy said...

I love this movie.

Yes, it has warts: The dialogue, especially, is clumsy. And the acting is unrestrained. Then again, this is a film about love and death that's spun through myth -- it wouldn't feel right if it didn't wear its heart on its sleeve.

To build off the last comment, I think that if one looks at The Fountain and The Wrestler one can see the potential for Aronfosky to make an inarguable, universal classic. But part of me hopes that doesn't happen. The big filmmakers today, save Spielberg, tend to run from emotion in order to win critical admiration and street cred, and as a result we've been fooled into thinking that films that feel are cheesy or cheap by default.

I love me some David Fincher, too, but I wish the Benjamin-Daisy relationship of Benjamin Button had even a sliver of the raw power of the Tommy-Izzi relationship. If the worst thing Aronofsky does is to continue to make films that are dripping with emotion, he'll be okay.

All of that said, The Fountain gets such a significant boost from its score -- the best of this young century, in my opinion, in terms of its impact -- that maybe Aronofsky got a little lucky here. Or, then again, maybe he was smart enough to catch lightning in a bottle, as he does with Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler.

Ed Howard said...

Jason, I think you're right that there's a real suspicion of sentiment and emotion these days, a tendency to praise coolness and distance and put down real over-the-top feeling. I for one love the big messy ambitious crazy emotionally complex movies like this one.

Sam Juliano said...

I love this movie so much that I am unable to satisfactorily explain myself here. I have watched it over 15 times, I travelled to Parsippany New York and to Long Island in the dead of winter during it's November-December release, after it had left the Angelika, and I needed to escort friends to see it. The thermometer on my car broke down on the Parsippany nightime visit, forcing my wife and two friends to experience near-frostbite. Both trips took took hours each way to negotiate.
Clint Mansell's score (with the Kronos Quartet and Mogwai) may well be the most piercingly beautiful in many a year, and the visuals and philosophical underpinnings were sublime and compelling. It's an emotional film that unfailingly moves one to tears. I have reviewed it as well, but certainly Ed's review here is as definitive as one will find.

It was my #1 film of 2006, and it contends for me as the film of the decade with Todd Haynes's FAR FROM HEAVEN.

Yes the 'haunting, ethereal beauty of the images' and the 'achingly romantic and heartbreaking' context are woven into the fabric of the film's essence. It's an overwhelming experience.

Sam Juliano said...

Jason Bellamy's review, linked above is (like Ed Howard's) most excellent.

Unknown said...

I would rank THE FOUNTAIN alongside MAGNOLIA as an over-ambitious big ol' mess of a movie that succeeds despite its flaws. It is so great to see someone sing its praises as it really got trounced by critics when it came out but I have a feeling that it will enjoy a re-evaluation in years to come.

THE FOUNTAIN stayed with me long after I saw it and I think that is a mark of an excellent film - one that resonates with you on some deep level. I have yet to see THE WRESTER (hope to tonight) but I've been a fan of Aronofsky's since PI and still wish his vision of BATMAN had been realized. I still can't comprehend his taking on a reboot of ROBOCOP but I'm sure it will be interesting.

Bob Turnbull said...

Count me in amongst those who love the film. I rarely consider buying soundtracks, but a recent re-viewing of the film convinced me I need to get this one (of course, I'm a big fan of Mogwai, so that helps too).

It's big and it aims high and I love that. I feel the same way about how people call this "pretentious" as I do about it when progressive rock music is called that (to be sure, some of it is...but some of it is truly trying to do something different). How come the self-importance of Celine Dion is never called pretentious?

Anyhoo, I digress...I thought it strange that many people called out the silliness of the "bald man in bubble" sequences when I never saw them as literal "this is a story that happened" moments.

Thanks for making me want to see this all over again.

Sam Juliano said...

Actually, J.D., the present RT count (yes I know that site flies in the face of scholarly criticism) is 95 favorable, 90 negative, which all things considered is a substantial upswing from the earlier numbers, leading one to think the re-evaluation you speak of is already underway. I don't deny it did receive some scathing notices (along with those who rightfully tabbed the film a masterpiece, with some even saying it was "life-changing") and perhaps the most infamous one was written by the New York Times's A.O. Scott, who called the film "unwatchable." I must say myself that neither REQUIEM nor WRESTLER comes within hailing distance of this towering achievement, one of the most ravishing and emotional films in many years, and one that is all-consuming.
Please exuse my overbearing attitude here, I simply can't help myself with this film, and when I woke up this morning and checked various blogsites, and came to Ed's and saw this review, I couldn't contain myself.

Ed Howard said...

It's great to see so much love for this film here, guys. Maybe Sam is right that The Fountain is already on its way to a critical re-evaluation. It certainly deserves it!

And Bob, I agree that the futuristic segment is not necessarily meant to be taken literally -- it might actually be about a much older Tommy floating through space, but it just as easily could be a strictly metaphorical journey, about his process of creativity as he attempts to finish Izzi's novel after her death. I actually prefer the latter interpretation, but I think Aronofsky leaves the relationship between the film's three parallel stories ambiguous on purpose.

Joel Bocko said...

I am kind of amazed by the rabid enthusiasm exhibited here. If nothing else, it's convinced me that the film deserves a second chance. Not that I had planned on never watching it again, but I certainly wasn't chomping at the bit for a re-viewing. Nonetheless, one seems in order.

For what it's worth, though, I'm definitely not opposed to emotional, larger-than-life films (far from it) and am DEFINITELY not enamored of the so-cool-its-cold Matrix/Fincher aesthetic. I just didn't believe in this movie, on first viewing anyway.

Ed Howard said...

Although I loved this film, too, I admit I'm surprised I did get so much agreement here -- I had been under the impression that this film was widely disliked.

For my part, I seem to love films at both extremes of the cool/emotional spectrum. I love films that are big and messy and wild, with larger-than-life emotional hues (Fassbinder, Lynch, Kusturica, etc.) but at the same time I also really appreciate more chilly, distanced aesthetics, like Fincher or Kubrick.

Dean Treadway said...

A tremendous review for one of the finest, most sadly misunderstood movies ever. I knew that the time would come when THE FOUNTAIN got its critical due, but I must say, I wasn't expecting it to happen soon, so the comments here make me feel good. Again, an excellent overview and evaluation, Ed.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Dean. As I said, I was thrilled to see so many supporters come out for this film. Looks like the critical turnaround was surprisingly quick.