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The Fountain Review

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by Chris McEneany May 7, 2007

    The Fountain Review
    The film that has split critics and audiences alike on both sides of the Atlantic arrives on Blu-ray without the circus of indignant condemnation or slavish, though also elitist, praise that heralded its theatrical tour of duty. Famously booed after its presentation at the Venice (not Cannes as has often been reported) Film Festival - though, in actuality, only by a perplexed handful, Darren Aronofsky's six-year obsession - or existential love ode to wife and star of the film, Rachel Weisz - is, indeed, a challenging, ambitious and thoroughly hard piece of work to fully appreciate on one viewing. Wilfully confounding with its three-tiered structure, The Fountain is the type of movie that is meant to act on many levels at once, and destined to resonate within the hearts and minds of many who fall for its melancholy spell of fear and hope, loss and redemption. The theme of trying to defeat Death, itself, trying to conquer what lies beyond the veil and, more intrinsically, keeping love alive forever, is a heady and complex one, and one that certainly left the critics in America - those that didn't simply ignore the film, that is - utterly bewildered. In the UK, The Fountain fared much better, attaining high ratings and enjoying lots of critical plaudits. Audiences, though, still largely ignored it. I didn't see the movie at the cinema, though I did read a lot about it and suspected that I would appreciate Aronofsky's epic, yet intimate soul-drama better at home, without any distractions from confused Multiplexers. I knew enough about the story and the cynicism, vitriol and vehemence its presentation has provoked around the world - just check out the net for some incredibly heated theological debates on its themes and narrative - to understand that this movie could well be a reviewer's dream or nightmare. So, with that responsibility in mind, potential purchasers please take note - possibly with this film, more than many others, personal opinion comes into play. The Fountain is most certainly not a movie that fits into any preconceived genre expectations. It purposely strikes new ground and is most profoundly intimate. Whether or not you can accept the moral and intellectual questions it poses, or rather the manner in which it attempts to answer those questions, is way beyond a reviewer simply stating, in their opinion, that this is a good, or a bad film, and without anything else to compare it to The Fountain pretty much stands alone.

    So, quite cleverly for such a divisive production, we will have two reviews on the film - this one for the BD release and one for the HD counterpart - and it will be interesting to see what I and my fellow reviewer both think about it. But, if nothing else, The Fountain will be revealed as an excellent and fertile ground for debate. Which is always good.

    “Take a walk with me.”

    “I can't ... I have too much work ...”

    The plot, which is refreshingly simple, revolves around present-day medical researcher Tommy Creo (Creo is Spanish for “I believe”, which is a major thematic strand) and his battle to find a cure for the cancer that is killing his wife, Izzi, played by Rachel Weisz. Not realising that his dogged determination to beat Death is resulting in his neglecting her at the very time when she needs him most, Tommy becomes a frightened, bitter and driven man. Izzi, meanwhile is writing a little book called The Fountain which, having come to terms with her own mortality, she knows she will not finish. In fact, she wants Tommy to complete the last chapter. Meanwhile, in the 15th Century, Spanish Conquistador Tomas (Jackman, again) is despatched by his Queen Isobel, played by Weisz, to find the Tree of Life from deep in the Mayan jungle. And then, a full millennium later, spaceman Tom (yep, its Jackman) is floating through the universe in a bizarre bubble that contains the Tree of Life, now ironically dying, itself, with the dream of regenerating it in the heart of a wonderful nebula that present-day Izzi has admired from afar, all her life. All three stories are inextricably entwined. All are tragic, all are transcendent. Of course, reality and fantasy collide throughout The Fountain and, quite obviously, one or more of these tales within tales are merely metaphorical extensions of a tragic, though all-too common dilemma that will, ultimately, be with us for all time. The film is not difficult to follow. In fact, the deviations that the story takes along the way just add layers of meaning and emotion that lift the plot out of what could have been a pure TV drama of week. The cunning thing is that Aronofsky's film leaves itself open to many interpretations and also peppers its narrative with a great deal of religious overtones and concepts, from ancient Mayan to Christianity to neo-existentialism, but does so in a delicately reassuring fable-like manner. It's a Zen study of the most important things in existence. And it's got Wolverine in it!

    Performance-wise, the film belongs utterly to Hugh Jackman, who delivers a triple portrayal of obsession, grief and acceptance with an enormous sense of confidence and commitment. The role is not an easy one. Tommy, who takes up the lion's share of the screen-time, is someone we obviously feel for, though, and this is the clever part, Jackman ensures that he is strangely not as sympathetic as we would, perhaps, have expected. Since his exasperated drive to find a cure is so all-consuming, it is clear that he feels guilt over not spending enough time with Izzi, once the inevitable has occurred. His awful catch-22 predicament ensures that those precious last few days, hours and moments are taken up with his frantic, and somewhat dubious, medical experiments to find a cure denies him and Izzi the quality of closure that both require. There are even shades of Mary Shelley's Victor Frankenstein to be gleaned from his single-minded quest to, in this case, prolong life, rather than create it. When the tragedy ultimately strikes, his show of rage in the hospital and then his dedicated hate for what Fate has done to him is acute and painful. Throughout earlier stretches he has managed to convey abject despair and helplessness at his and Izzi's plight - the retreat to a darkened room to weep whilst she is asleep and, more agonisingly, the moment when he realises that she can no longer distinguish between hot and cold - and Jackman deals with these horrible, but all-too real emotions with such conviction that, at times, it feels uncomfortable to watch. As Tomas the Conquistador, he shows us some more conventional aggression and his quest feels more linear and natural but, denied the reality of the modern-day setting, this scenario seems to lack the same heart and soul - which is a terrible shame, since this part, arguably, is the fantastical way in which Izzi sees her and her husband's desperate plight. Likewise, the shaven-headed Tom's plummet through the cosmos is possibly too ambiguous to have us care in quite the right amount. This isn't Jackman's fault, though. Aronofsky's screenplay, wisely or wrongly but certainly deliberately, leaves much of this section open to conjecture. Jackman excellently brings to the screen wonder and revelation, desperation and awe but I can't help thinking that one essential stepping stone has been left out for us to arrive comfortably at the correct emotional destination. It's not enough to ruin Hugh Jackman's towering performance, but it does lessen the overall effect of what the actor has been striving for as far as I'm concerned. He proves with this, and the exquisite The Prestige, that there is much, much more to this Boy From Oz than just Wolverine and, God forbid, Van Helsing.

    Rachel Weisz is typically excellent as the unfortunate yet resigned Izzi. If her American accent tends to waver a little bit, and the subjective lighting that suffuses her with soft radiance amplifies those eyebrows perhaps too much, she more than makes up for it with a performance that is quietly dignified, selfless and rare. In moments of tenderness and anxiety, she reveals the fragility and strength of Izzi. At peace with her own demise, she is desperate to have her husband share the same acceptance, but he is so blinkered by his quest that he cannot make the best use of those final few grains of sand that time has left for them. Her dedication to have him feature as a part of their entwined future - metaphorically, the book is she writing is a time machine that will keep them together if only he knew to use it - is wonderfully encapsulated with Weisz's turn as the Queen of Spain, anchoring her everlasting happiness with, not so much as her warrior's mission into the Mayan jungle, but her lover's simple belief that their souls can go on together after death. The first time I watched this film, I didn't really cotton on to just how powerful her role really was. Oh, I understood its implications all right, but it took another viewing to fully appreciate the luminescence of Weisz's character and the simple, yet dominating truth that her conviction brings.

    The recurring image of Izzi asking Tom to come outside to take their traditional walk in the first snows of the year becomes a haunting glitch in the playback of Tom's plight. And, like the time traveller who repeatedly goes back to try to save someone he loves from the fate that destiny has in store for them, various interpretations can, and are, made of this. Tom's guilt eventually has him begging her to stop appearing before him though, of course, he needs this painful reminder as full closure for himself can only be found when he properly addresses this niggling thorn in his soul. It is funny just how much Jackman, with his shaven bonce, resembles Robert Carlyle as he appeared as the serial killer in Cracker or the boring Bond-baddie Renard in The World Is Not Enough, during these final pivotal scenes in the bubble. But, perhaps purposely, the look is one that brings to mind a Death Row captive, imprisoned by fate and with only one destination left available to him. It also recalls Robert Duvall's THX-1138 and, perhaps more pertinently, a patient undergoing chemotherapy.

    Visually, the movie is captivating. The rich and atmospheric Mayan temple and the vaguely eerie Spanish Court - check out the torture chambers that Aronofsky shockingly juxtaposes with the floating-candles of the Queen's chamber - and the greenish hue of Tommy's scientific lab make way for the highly unusual chemical universe of golden stars and hypnotic nebulae through which Tom voyages. A temple-top vista of a veritable Eden and the starkly beautiful setting for a snowbound funeral also entrance. The speeding prose written in florid fountain pen (appropriately enough) that whisks us into the past or the future is a neat idea, too, highlighting the belief that words are the key to opening doorways in the imagination. Of course, it is possible to read too much into a film like this. Aronofsky, whilst remaining reticent about what it all means as far his script goes, has always maintained that the story is a simple one with a clear trajectory. And I would have to agree. The head-scratching aspect that so many unimaginative people out there don't seem to like about the film is only to be found in the director's stylistic flourishes, the richly embroidered texture that swathes the film in mood and nuance. The Fountain actually encourages you to think a little deeper about what you are seeing on-screen which surely has to be a healthy concept once in a while. Then again, if an existential meander along the path towards Life's greatest mystery is not your thing, then no amount of persuasion from me will convince you otherwise. But, for me, the point is crystal clear and the film follows one distinct course - it is the tonal set dressing, alone, that threads the enigma. You only have to notice the fact that Jackman's trio of characters are forever moving along dark passages - literal and symbolic - to realise that he is always heading towards the light.

    But for all those who utter the film's title in the same breath as 2001: A Space Odyssey (come out on BD or HD soon, puh-leeze!) and Solaris (the original as well as the Clooney remake), well I can see their point, actually. But the similarity is down to all three stories adhering to a single, serious and sombre mood, with 2001 and The Fountain even utilising a three-time-period concept. But even the moods evoked aren't all that similar. Solaris deals with death and grief as much as The Fountain, but from a much further-removed angle, and 2001, of course, hurtles into the existential unknown as does Jackman's futuristic Tom, but in Aronofsky's film this journey is metaphorical, rather than the spiritual-cum-evolutionary quantum leap of Kubrick's. In fact, the sci-fi film that The Fountain most reminds me of is Doug Trumball's excellent eco-fantasy Silent Running. Quiet, intimate, yearning and, in the end, inescapable. Even visually, the giant ship that Bruce Dern's compassionate voyager travels in is a huge glass dome transporting the last living forest from Earth through space. In The Fountain, Tom's cerebral space-bubble boings through the dreamy, liquid cosmos with a great big tree nestled within it. And both are journeys of salvation and understanding. That said though, The Fountain is quite audaciously original is style and scope. Aronofsky's opus was originally intended for Brad Pitt and had a true saga of ups and downs in getting produced. Mel Gibson was also briefly attached to the project and it is slightly curious to note that, after he and Aronofsky parted company, with Gibson retaining the originally larger-scale script, which featured a much bigger Mayan battle at the start, the headline-snatching filmmaker came up with Apocalypto, his own take on the Mayan culture.

    Not exactly the most prolific director, Aronofsky must still be applauded for making the kind of films that he wants to make, even he takes his sweet time doing it. Pi was a brilliant and highly unusual directorial debut and Requiem For A Dream remains very highly regarded picture. The Fountain cements his position as one of the most individualistic and elusive filmmakers at work today and, although it will be ignored, disregarded or slated by many, it is, nonetheless, a potent, personal and powerful endeavour that reminds you that movies can still be great works of art. The film is profound, delicate, psychologically daring and aesthetically spellbinding. Jackman and Weisz are easily at the top of their game and Aronofsky directs from the heart, which in today's cinema is a rare gift for a film. Like it or loathe it, The Fountain cannot fail to set tongues wagging and the old grey matter swirling. Personally, I preferred the vital modern-day segments much, much more than the surrounding episodes of past and future - however they are supposed to fit the story at large - and found the denouement less satisfying than I had hoped. The style adopted may be impressive and daring, but it may also be a little too ambiguous and avant-garde to allow more than a select following access into the full majesty of Aronofsky's vision. Thus, The Fountain has true cult status stamped all over it.

    Regular Aronofsky composer Clint Mansell provides a spectral, ambient, poignant and emotional score for The Fountain. But, as a huge lover and collector of film music, I found that I could barely recall any of the themes or cues even after viewing the film a couple of times. That, to me, is a disappointment, although I could, perhaps, lay the blame for this at Mansell's use of the Kronos Quartet - frequent Philip Glass collaborators and who also worked on Aronofsky's Requiem For A Dream - as their somewhat somnambulist approach to melodies often leaves me cold.

    “My Queen, now and forever, we shall be together.”

    Much like his main character of Tomas/Tommy/Tom, Aronofsky comes across to me as someone who has become so blinkered by his own quest - in his case, to bring this particular story to life - that he, too, may have overlooked some of the smaller details that would have endeared his film to a larger audience. The smart irony being that it is often the slight imperfections in a creation that make it all the more irresistible. So, in final analysis, The Fountain may not be the masterpiece that some make out, but it is very far from being the boring and incomprehensible shambles that many others like to point out. I believe it to be a bold and always intriguing exploration of life and love and how, in the right frame of mind, both can last forever. But its most magnetic trait is an indefinable, but ecstatically otherworldly quality that sets it light years apart from most other films. Highly recommended, The Fountain gets a very richly-deserved 9 out of 10 from me because it is brave enough to depart from the norm and confront some very big issues in a highly stylised and intimately affecting way. A story for everyone, but not one that everyone will take to.