(USA, 2006, 96 minutes)
Written by: Darren Aronofsky (story by Aronofsky and Ari Handel)
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, Ellen Burstyn, Stephen McHattie
I'm here to defend Darren Aronofsky's much-jeered inner-space opera as a work of too-rare passion, realized with a painter's eye and a poet's unbridled romanticism. "The Fountain" has only screened at two festivals (Venice, and now Toronto) so far but has already earned its fair share of naysayers who seem to revel in the opportunity to take this gifted young filmmaker down a peg for his alleged crime of ambition. This intolerance is troubling—isn’t this exactly the kind of film most critics bitch that the proverbial they don’t make enough of? Experimental yet personal, intellectual but emotionally-charged, with a total disregard for conventional narrative structures and tidy resolutions--plus, it looks and sounds like nothing you've ever seen. Outside of a short subject like 'Ryan", when was the last time you thrilled to CG imagery that seemed to be the work of a single artist's vision and not the hyper-real--but curiously lifeless--product of a render farm? You may love it, you may hate it--there'll be no middle ground on this one.
Hugh Jackman (who headlines four major releases this year) plays variations of the same character in three interwoven stories that revolve around the search for immortality over a millennium. In the 16th century, he’s Spanish conquistador Tomas, sent to New Spain by Queen Isabel (Weisz, never lovelier) to bring back sap from Yggsdrasil, the biblical Tree of Life, which is said to grant eternal life. After an arduous sea voyage to Central America, Tomas survives mutiny and violent resistence from the Mayan army to find the tree secured within a pyramid, which is defended the demonic Lord Of Xibalba.
In present day, he’s now Tommy, an obsessive surgeon who has thrown himself into 24-7 experimentation to distract himself from the sorrow of his wife’s inoperable brain cancer. We find out that what we’ve seen is part of a novel being written by doomed Izzi (Weisz again), who faces her cruel fate with a mordant wit and enchantment with even the smallest pleasures of life. At Tommy’s lab, he pushes his coworkers, including empathic Lillian (Burtsyn), towards a single goal: to stop aging, and with it, dying. A breakthrough occurs when a compound extracted from a Gautemalan tree yields a promising treatment—for a monkey. Will he be able to make it work on humans in time? Izzi would rather they make the most of their time together and for Tommy to finish her story.
Centuries later (the trailer says the year is 2500), he’s bald and gaunt Tom Creo, tattooed in self-inscribed characters, traveling across a vaporous cosmos inside a clear bubble towards the Xibalba nebula, which Izzi believed to be the location of the underworld, according to Mayan folklore. Alone, but with Izzi’s guidance in the form of either spirit or memory, he subsides on nourishment from the Tree Of Life and the belief that upon arrival, they will be reunited.
“What if death were an act of creation?” Izzi asks her brooding husband at one point. It’s certainly provided to be fertile artistic ground for Aronofsky, who planned to follow up his exhilteratingly doom-laden “Requiem For A Dream” with everything from the"Batman: Year One” and "Watchman" comic book adaptations to an episode of “Lost”. “The Fountain” was initially a “go” as a multi-million dollar epic with Brad Pitt in the lead, until his A-list ticket pulled out and the production was promptly shut down (sets had already been constructed in Sydney).
Aronofsky resurrected the project as a "graphic novel" (currently out-of-print and fetching high prices on the web) with artist Kent Williams, whose syrupy paint streaks and scratchy typography hint at what could have been (the book will be reprinted in softcover by DC/Vertigo comics in time for the film's release). The story and structure are pretty much the same, there’s just more of everything: more conquistadors, more medical experiments, more cosmic bubbles, more exploding stars, and a lot of narration, which should please people who needed the Marvel “2001” comic book adaptation to figure out what was going on. Without the “anything-goes” budget, Aronofsky was forced to distill the tale down to its essence, and like his trifurcated protagonist, unearthed the heart.
Not since “The Matrix” has a mainstream release dared to beam metaphysics into the multiplex, but for many it won’t be as accessible. Whereas the Wachowskis raided Hong Kong action films, anime, and cyberpunk for their high-minded, and high-kicking ode to Jean Baudrillard and Lewis Carroll, Aronofsky’s narrative approach owes much to the unstuck-in-time careening of Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” and its eclectic palette (DOP Matthew Libatique shows he’s as capable of mixing styles as the versatile and consistently astounding Robert Richardson) to the vermillion-hued brutality of Goya, the foreboding stillness of Kubrick, and the pastry mindscapes of Roger Dean’s prog-rock album art, with recurring nods to Jung, Carlos Castaneda, and even Jack Kirby in his inky/cosmic “Fourth World” period.
We’ve all encountered those so smitten with their love of another (either at the top of their lungs or while bounding atop sofa cushions), that your immediate impulse is to either high-five them with congratulations or backhand them across the face--sometimes both, depending on your mood. Cinematically, this sort of grandstanding can be equally perilous, but Aronofsky has never backed away from a challenge (remember, he began his career with a black and white thriller about mathematics and the Torah), and here, he has sought to tell nothing less than the greatest love story ever.
Thankfully, he doesn’t forget that the tale is first and foremost a two-hander, and lets his leads do most of the work; often in tight close-ups (although Clint Mansell’s mournful Philip Glass-y score is wall-to-wall, just in case things falter). Showing remarkable range after careers spent largely in popcorn flicks, Jackman and Weisz anchor the extreme mode shifts and sometimes confounding exposition in an emotional realism. Who, when crippled by grief, hasn't bargained with the universe? Who amongst us hasn’t felt that rush when we’re convinced our bond could stop time, change the world, transcend flesh into something ethereal? If only we could all experience the love that Aronofsky obviously has for his craft…
Robert J. Lewis
Thursday, September 14, 2006