Thursday, February 21, 2013
The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky, 2006)
I remember, upon seeing the original commercials for Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, being intrigued at what looked like a visionary romantic fantasy, perhaps not altogether unlike the "quest for the Grail" section of John Boorman's 1981 Excalibur. Now, finally watching The Fountain some seven years later, although the Excalibur comparisons linger, I find it quite a different film than what I imagined.
As it turns out, the images that caught my eye from the commercials, featuring Hugh Jackman as a Spanish conquistador questing for the tree of life, represented only one of three interwoven storylines in the film. There's also the narrative of Jackman as a future spacefaring monk, his destination the nebula of Xibalba, held in some Mayan traditions as the road to the underworld. These plots are secondary and tertiary, however, to the story of Jackman as a 21st-century scientist working furiously to cure his wife's brain tumor. And it all opens with a verse from the Book of Genesis about the fall of man, when God cut off Adam and Eve from the tree of life, thereby consigning humankind to mortality.
Ostensibly, the present-day storyline is reality within the film's overall narrative, while the other two plots are depictions of a story that Jackman's wife (Rachel Weisz) has been writing, which she leaves up to him to finish. Truthfully, it doesn't matter a great deal whether any of the stories are "real." The less-than-credible medical research that Jackman's doctor character conducts is treated only in broad strokes, as is his entire world, drenched in mood and painted in the same haunting, claustrophobic tones as the other two tales, which it liberally transitions into and back from in nonlinear fashion. What unites these three dreams within a dream thematically is the universal struggle to come to terms with death as an inescapable reality of the human condition.
I can scarcely imagine what it must have been like to try to cut a trailer or TV spot for this movie. How do you telescope this lyrical thousand-year love story into 2 minutes and 30 seconds? Or what clip of out-of-context wooden dialogue would you pick out to speak for and sell it as something powerful? On the other hand, the entire movie actually feels kind of like a 96-minute trailer, so maybe any random selection of clips would reasonably represent the experience of the film as a whole.
As thematically rich and visually virtuosic as it is, The Fountain is not an overly challenging film to comprehend. What it has to say, ultimately, is what it presents right there on its surface. You can unpack the words and images to provide support for the message without ever arriving at any deeper truth than what you would have begun with, which is not to say that the simple truth is not profound. But it is not some highly intellectual, philosophical treatise that the film argues. In this movie about what it means to be human and mortal, the emotions of grief, desperation, and especially love are keenly felt, and, to the extent that that emotional resonance is what Aronofsky was aiming for, The Fountain should be regarded as a triumph.
Trying to describe the movie only makes it sound more complicated than it is. But I actually get this, far more so than I get, say, neuroscience. (I still sometimes get mistaken for an intellectual, but it's not lost on me that my friends with science backgrounds are the ones courteously lowering themselves to my level, because they know I would never be able to follow along in talking about their passions.) There's a moment late in the film, when Hugh Jackman's character is confronted with grief and despair that would topple almost any man, and his friends try to comfort him. At that moment, before the words could leave his lips, I knew what he was going to say. I knew because it's what I would have felt.