Wednesday, November 29, 2006
Death is the road to awe.
Though I'm past one hundred thousand miles
I'm feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go
Tell my wife I love her very much she knows...
There are a number of breathtaking moments in The Fountain, but the most indelible is a husband's whispered reassurance to his wife that "Everything's alright." The Fountain is a grandiose metaphysical contraption that rests on such intimate everyday moments; it's a beautiful reminder that the sublime resides not only beyond the infinite but right here in this very moment. And at the core of the film is the realization that real love opens us up to all the universe's possibilities - every moment is invested with genuine urgency once you've found your other half. The Fountain is a film about two soulmates faced with the question of whether they will meet again after this life; it is a lyrical, heartbreaking reminder that love itself is an enormous act of faith.
The dramatic core of the film, which tells three intersecting stories set in different times, continents and even regions of the galaxy, takes place in the present day. Tom (Hugh Jackman) is a scientist desperately searching for a way to save his dying wife, Izzy (Rachel Weisz). While Tom spends his time in the lab looking for a cure, Izzy quietly urges her husband to stop and listen, to appreciate what time they have. Izzy writes a book, The Fountain, that tells the tale of a 16th century conquistador, Tomas (Jackman) on a quest to find the mythical Tree of Life in order to save his queen (Weisz). We also catch up with Tommy 500 years in the future as he journeys towards Xibalba, a brilliant, golden nebula that may contain the answers he's searching for in its dying center. At first, the effect of cutting from a violent moment atop a Mayan temple to the infinite silence of space is pleasurably disorienting; forced to adjust to the film's shifting aesthetic and temporal scope, we are almost hypnotically driven to discard any cynical detachment and give in to the film's trippy cosmic vibes. The Fountain is wildly ambitious, and if its thematic depth didn't match its nimble visual trickery, than the result would be empty, pretentious, and laughable. But director Darren Aronofsky has made an astonishingly mature, contemplative film, one that can stand up to terms like "transcendent" and "spiritual" without a trace of hyperbole. It's extremely rare to find a film that is both intellectually challenging and emotionally moving; it is rarer still to find a film like The Fountain, which sends your mind racing in a thousand different directions while it moves you to tears. It's a demanding experience, but it will shake you to your core.
The two leads do the best work of their careers here, juggling multiple variations on the same characters with insight and grace. Hugh Jackman goes above and beyond any previous expectations; while he's an easy fit for the conquistador, his modern-day Tom is an extraordinarily nuanced portrait of sorrow, allowing practically every minor gesture to reveal a larger truth about Tom's experience. He's matched by Weisz; I had no idea the actress was capable of such delicacy. Izzy confronts her impending death with clarity and grace; she's the kind of character you can't help but fall in love with, which makes the film's message all the more devastating. The actors anchor the film, particularly in its challenging futuristic sequences; by not condescending to the sci-fi aspects of the story and portraying its underlying humanity, they give the film a powerful emotional center that carries it across the universe.
But it is Aronofsky who is the real revelation here - The Fountain is a remarkable progression from his first feature, π, which first revealed the director's preoccupation with intertextuality that becomes deeper and more resonant here. One of the delights of The Fountain is the way that it celebrates the connections between various cultures' means of explaining where we've come from and where we are headed - I've long felt that we could all benefit from following Leonard Cohen's suggestion "Let us compare mythologies." Aronofsky moves nimbly between Judeo-Christian, Buddhist, Taoist, and assorted esoteric archetypes, underscoring the ways in which symbols cross cultural barriers and suggest an underlying human narrative. Izzy finds comfort in the Mayan concept of death as a form of creation - both an ascension and a rebirth - and we are invited to do the same. Aronofsky isn't pushing us to embrace a particular belief; instead, he's urging us to participate in the greater chain of human life, and he does this with subtlety and wit.
The real surprise, however, is The Fountain's huge heart. I admired Aronofsky's previous film, Requiem For a Dream, but felt that the director used his innovative, hip hop-inspired editing rhythms and assorted directorial tricks as a way to detach himself from any real emotional investment in the material (Jennifer Connelly and Ellen Burstyn, who does fine work in a supporting role here, saved Requiem from being completely remote). The same tricks are on display here, but it feels as though he's internalized the filmmaking process; the fear that Tom feels is Aronofsky's as well, and he confronts it nakedly here. The use of ink to replace a lost wedding ring (itself an enduring archetypical symbol of love's transcendence of death) suggests that Aronofsky has become a true auteur; his personal and artistic concerns have been fused in a sort of beautiful symmetry. Even the special effects (which rely on optical effects more than CGI) bear the mark of uncompromising personal vision; Xibalba becomes a significant character, the face of everything we struggle but fail to articulate about our brief experience on this planet.
There is the unavoidable invitation to chuckle at the sight of a bald Hugh Jackman doing tai chi in space. But the visionary often borders on the ridiculous, and make no mistake: this is a visionary work. For all I've written about The Fountain, I suspect that I've only scratched the surface, as this is an incredibly dense work of art that demands repeat viewings to uncover its various layers (I haven't even touched upon its status as a passionate work of environmental advocacy). The Fountain is an bold, brilliant celebration of the dignity of human experience and the importance of love above all things. It is a wonder to behold.