In Mayan mythology, immortality was achieved only through death — the First Father sacrificed himself to create the Tree of Life, which burst forth from his very stomach. This tension – the paradoxical relationships between life, death and ultimately rebirth – is at the very heart of Darren Aronofsky’s latest film “The Fountain.” Spanning 1,000 years and following three parallel love stories, “The Fountain” is a ponderous conflation of Mayan mysticism, Judeo-Christian myth and Buddhist philosophy that asks what happens to life, and love, if we become immortal.
The film begins in the 16th century amid the rain and darkness of a Central American jungle. Spanish conquistador Tomas Creo (Hugh Jackman with long hair and an unruly beard) has, at the behest of his Queen, Isabel (Rachel Weisz), gone in search of the fabled Tree of Life. In the present day Jackman plays the clean-shaven Tommy Creo, a research scientist desperately searching for the cure that will save his wife Izzie from a brain tumor — interestingly, a brain tumor that has somehow left Weisz’s Izzie more radiant than ever. Five hundred years in the future, Jackman is completely bald and gently floats through space in a transparent, circular bubble toward a nebula called Xibalba — also the name of the Mayan underworld — that shrouds a dying star and Izzie, it seems, has become a tree.
These three stories are not presented chronologically, or in any other sort of linear way; rather, they unfold simultaneously and are revealed bit by bit in the film’s swirling, cyclical narrative (indeed, circles, and other geometric shapes for that matter, figure prominently in the film’s visual syntax). The first 20 minutes of “The Fountain” are particularly difficult to make sense of, although not too much makes sense at the film’s end either. Audiences are sure to leave the theater puzzled, and (as good films ultimately must) “The Fountain” certainly asks more questions than it answers.
Almost too self-consciously, Aronofsky (who directed “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream”) has tried to subvert the prescriptively chronological framework of narrative film. Ignoring mundane assumptions about the nature of space and time, he instead connects the film’s three stories through a poetic visual language rich with symbolism and metaphor. The sumptuous 16th-century gowns Weisz wears as Queen Isabel prefigure her eventual transformation into a tree and, in a particularly sensual set of rhyming images that is repeated throughout “The Fountain,” tiny hairs on a tree rise, almost erotically, to Tom’s touch just as Tommy is stirred by the soft hairs on the back of Izzie’s neck.
The film is exquisitely composed, to be sure. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s palette is dominated by lavish golds that continuously flicker like the very stars among which Tom drifts, and composer Clint Mansell’s elegiac strings seem to resonate with a spiritual grandeur that underscores the mystique of the Creos’ quest for eternal life.
The lighting scheme is also deeply connected to the film’s narrative: Izzie, who sees “death as an act of creation” is continually bathed in light, Weisz’s alabaster skin always aglow, while Jackman is constantly in shadow until, at the film’s end, he stops fearing death.
And “The Fountain” is essentially the story of one man’s fear of and attempts to overcome death, whether by drinking from the Tree of Life or finding the cure to cancer.
It is unclear, though, whether the film is tracing a single pair of lovers who live for 1,000 years or three separate (but somehow connected) stories that take place in three distinct times. It doesn’t really matter whether they have lived for a thousand years or not, though; the film’s plot may not always make sense, but its meaning is never diminished. There may be plenty of ways to interpret the film, but just as “The Fountain” seems to affirm ancient mythologies through modern science, it suggests that ultimately there is only one Truth.
Dir: Darren Aronofsky
Warner Bros. Pictures