RACHEL WEISZ AND Hugh Jackman are actors of two dramatically different molds: the former subtle, sensual, sweet; the latter sturdy, stern, a little surly. In many contexts they might grate against one another or come off as gruffly fraternal, like siblings who never got on as children but are working things out as adults. In Darren Aronofsky’s ‘The Fountain’, however, the pair has a powerful chemistry that resonates across time and space—literally. Spanning past, present, and future with characteristically sweeping ambition, Aronofsky frames Jackman and Weisz as recurring embodiments of the same eternal principles. Their interwoven narratives allow for complex characters to be rendered from three heavily-lined strokes: Tomas, a fiery-eyed conquistador questing for queen and country; Tommy, a brilliant brain surgeon tortured by his inability to cure his wife’s terminal cancer; and Tom, a sci-fi futureman speeding through space, striving to mask guilt and sorrow with a broadly Eastern spirituality. If nothing else, this film (along with ‘The Prestige’) shows that Jackman can heft the weight of a serious role with an approach reminiscent of Hemingway: above the surface a weathered scrap of ice—beneath it, a vastness that strains and sometimes cracks from its own weight.
As Isabel, beatific queen of Spain, Weisz is crowned with an eldritch golden glow and is idolized by both the camera and Tomas more as a fixture than a figure. This third of the film brings to life the contents of the novel being written by Izzi, Weisz’s modern-day character, which gives the film its name. Loosely aligned with the Spanish conquest of the Mayans, this section is sometimes hokey in its melodrama and the easiest narrative to regard with skepticism. Yet its tactile wonder and kinetic characters (conquerors’ swords speak louder than surgeons’ scalpels) are a useful visual counterpoint to the nearly greyscale drudgery of the modern storyline.
In our own chill world, Izzi radiates life like a dying star. Late in the film Tommy comes to visit her at the hospital, where she delivers her unfinished novel into his hands saying that he will know how to write the last chapter when it is time. The metaphor is glaringly clear, but each of the film’s heavily loaded props is validated by deeply earnest performances from both actors. When they embrace, the camera cuts from one face to another: his wan and white, hers ruddy and flushed with contentment. Acceptance. Happiness. Completeness. As if she were the one speeding towards vitality and he on death’s descent.
Inspired in part by ‘The Matrix’ as well as cancer diagnoses within Aronofsky’s own family, ‘The Fountain’ reflects a weird dichotomy: on the one hand an open love letter to sci-fi, on the other an intensely personal emotional trauma. It is unashamedly introspective, arguably maudlin, and altogether a little overwrought. All are common tropes of Aronofsky that polarize his audiences, but ‘The Fountain’ brims with such creativity, conviction, and at times even grace that we are caught up in its current. Our jaded indifference towards actors acting is washed away, obliging us to reflect—however briefly—on our own inescapable ends. More than a film, ‘The Fountain’ is a meditation. And as much as it is an affirmation of life, it is also a bitter rejection of Western monotheism and its grim fear of mortality. Christianity is non-existent in the latter two storylines, and in the first is the exclusive domain of perverse caricatures—corrupt torturers with blood-splattered maps and covetous politics. It’s a regrettably reductive attitude towards the faith, but admittedly an accurate reflection of the disillusionment of many nonreligious Westerners born into a Judeo-Christian heritage that seems warped by centuries of materialism.
“Death is a disease.” “Death is the road to awe.” The linear and finite abut the circular and eternal in ‘The Fountain’s defining dilemma. Trying to articulate such themes often lapses into anodyne axioms and sentimental lecturing: ‘live each day as if it’s your last’, ‘be happy with what you have to be happy with’, etc. But in this case Aronofsky’s sometimes crippling obsession with personal chronicles becomes his greatest asset. ‘The Fountain’ is not concerned with preaching to its audience, but rather exorcizing its own demons: recognizing them, defining them, delineating them, and beginning to cut the hate and pain away from the lifesblood. Like tumors.
In almost every setting the film’s look is luxurious to the point of excess—especially in the past and future narratives—yet it retains an elegance and timeless quality that Aronofsky achieved by eschewing CGI effects almost completely. To achieve his stellar backdrops, in an appropriately Zen kind of twist the director looked down instead of up: the infinity of stars and sprawling nebulae we see in the future narrative are actually microscopic chemical reactions, photographed in macro and expanded to fill the sky and Tom’s awestruck eyes. The effect is seamless, consuming, searingly memorable, and unlikely to be diminished by age. Equally reverent is the score by Clint Mansell—circular, like the film, constantly returning to the same few themes with quiet persistence. It achieves a sprawling majesty at times, but performed by the Kronos Quartet and Mogwai it also has an intimacy that occurs more naturally between chosen band members than hired orchestral hands.
As most Aronofsky’s films tend to do, ‘The Fountain’ addresses the human condition in gory detail. Many have criticized its grandiose proclamations about themes far beyond comprehension and dismissed it as overreaching folly. Admittedly, it is easy to take potshots at anyone who seeks to scale such heights. But for all its wild turns, ‘The Fountain’ comes to rest upon an immeasurable strength: peace amidst all this turmoil, permanence in transience, and the power of release. Surely this effort is nobler than to wallow in fleshly sorrows that eternity renders utterly moot.