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November 22, 2006 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | November 22, 2006 |

I find it almost impossible to accurately lay out the plot of The Fountain, and for that, writer-director Darren Aronofsky deserves high marks. The paranoia of his debut, Pi (1998), led directly to the sweaty, mentally unstable hell of Requiem for a Dream (2000), which made heroin addiction seem even less pleasant than I’d imagined it would be. Requiem for a Dream was a challenge to watch in every way: Visceral and depressing, the film pulled off the admirable feat of being both visually arresting and tough to stomach. But in the intervening years between Aronofsky’s first films and the long-awaited release of his third, something pretty important happened: He grew up. His aesthetic style hasn’t changed as much as it has evolved; gone are the frenetic, dizzying cuts, but Aronofsky’s even more in love with close-ups than he was before, and his visuals are more dazzling than ever. His fascination with bodies and physicality is now tempered by such grand emotions as love, hope, and perseverance in the face of certain failure. That’s what makes The Fountain so compelling but ultimately too slippery to grasp. Aronofsky’s trafficking in a purely emotional narrative, and the resulting film, though it doesn’t connect the way it means to, is nevertheless brimming with fire and heart.

There are three distinct storylines that unfold around and within each other, beginning with Tomas (Hugh Jackman), a Spanish conquistador sent by his queen (Rachel Weisz) to find the Tree of Life in the new world that will save the nation. Tomas trudges through the Mayan jungle with two other soldiers, only to be ambushed by the local tribe guarding the tree. It’s a harrowing action sequence, and cinematographer Matthew Libatique, working for the third time with Aronofsky, is the perfect complement for the director, balancing formal framing with enough off-kilter views to keep things fresh. The story then smashes a thousand years into the future, with a bald-headed Tom (Jackman) floating through space in a giant bubble that houses an enormous gnarled tree. The stunning silence of the new location is matched only by the astounding visuals developed for the film, none of which use CGI. Although computers were used to compile, layer, and work with the images, none of those images were created in the computer; soap bubbles, model trees, and Petri dish experiments were used to generate the unique visual style for the film, and the resulting fantasy feels oddly realistic. It makes sense to see Jackman floating through the cosmos like Dave Bowman’s Star-Child because there’s an immediacy, a texture, to his surroundings.

The narrative eventually shifts to the core of the triptych: Tommy (Jackman), a research scientist, is struggling to come up with a solution for primate brain tumors in hopes of finding a cure that might work for his dying wife, Izzie (Weisz). But Aronofsky never comes right out and says that, and neither do any of the characters. The screenplay is blissfully free of such clunky exposition, leaving the viewer to deal with the ramifications of the story as it unfolds a piece at a time. Such realism is the structural flipside to the visual effects, and the combination creates a concrete cinematic world, one that feels as if it existed for years and just happened to appear when Aronofsky picked up his camera. The Tommy-Izzie storyline is the strongest part of the film, in part because it suffuses and defines the rest. In a Moebius-level development, Izzie’s working on a novel called “The Fountain” and lets Tommy read the rough draft, which plunges the story back into Tomas’ era before he sets out on his journey.

The switches between the storylines happen abruptly, and it becomes clear that Aronofsky isn’t really going to confine himself to typical act breaks, but rather go with the emotional flow. Obviously, the use of Jackman and Weisz across three disparate story arcs revolving around eternal life raises the question: Is it the same character, or are the tales merely parallels? Aronofsky’s answer is simply “Yes.” The stories are separate, and also connected, and additionally form a larger whole that only makes sense when viewed from a distance. Sometimes it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but Aronofsky’s willing to trade narrative cohesion for emotional resonance, and he mostly succeeds.

And yet, for all the film’s beauty and earnestness and desire to transcend genre and soar into the realm of the Good, it just doesn’t quite get there. Aronofsky’s trio of champions pursue eternal life at any cost, but the film still feels like it’s skating on the surface instead of plumbing any kind of emotional depths for the answers to life’s big questions. Tommy and Izzie love each other, but it’s the kind of broad, bland love that exists only in movies like this one, where Tommy’s highest goal isn’t to save his wife but to throw himself into the act of salvation; he doesn’t want her to live, he wants to be the warrior that saves her life. It’s a thin but definite line that winds up turning Tommy’s affections into the most selfish kind of love, but it gels with Aronofsky’s larger picture, especially when it comes to the impossibly wonderful martyr he’s created in Izzie. More than simply ready to meet her fate, she’s positively giddy at the idea of embracing death, and is prone to the kind of peaceful pontifications and words of eternal happiness to Tommy that seem out of place with her impending passing.

Still, for all its missteps into mythological navel-gazing, The Fountain manages to stand apart as Aronofsky’s personal exploration into the nature of love and the willingness to pursue an object of obsessive desire. The film eventually doubles and trebles back on itself in a climactic attempt to convey the inexpressible breadth of emotion captured in the smallest moments of a relationship, but that’s just the problem: Aronofsky’s paean to the throes of love is really just walking in circles. But it’s a beautiful trip.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.

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