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An Outline of a Heartbreaker: Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain

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An Outline of a Heartbreaker: Darren Aronofsky’s <em>The Fountain</em>

Part sci-fi head trip, part swoony romance and part pop-philosophical manifesto, The Fountain is a gusher of poetic imagery, extravagant yet controlled. Hugh Jackman plays three incarnations of a hero: a conquistador trying to find the Fountain of Youth, a present-day cancer researcher who’s in denial over his wife’s impending death, and a 26th century astronaut piloting a translucent starship into a disintegrating nebula believed to be the gateway to the afterlife. But because the tales are not merely intercut, but densely interwoven—with images from one section being quoted, alluded to or expanded upon in another—The Fountain feels less like an anthology of thematically similar short stories than variations of the same narrative developed on parallel planes. When the movie cuts away from one period, you feel as though the story is still moving forward even though you’re not there to see it. Every scene—indeed, every shot—has been composed, designed, blocked and lit for maximum aesthetic oomph. You can envision the storyboards pinned on a production office wall, each drawing accompanied by a typewritten sheet explaining why every creative touch, however seemingly small, is integral to the film’s vision.

But the go-to lazy critic phrase “Every frame is a painting” won’t do here, because it implies the possibility of absorbing what’s in front of you while it’s in front of you, and this film makes such perceptual spelunking impossible. Writer-director Darren Aronofsky’s imagination apparently has just one mode, fast-forward; like his first two features, Pi and Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain unreels like the longest and ripest of movie trailers; Aronofsky and his regular editor, Jay Rabinowitz, hold each image long enough to register, but rarely long enough to penetrate and astonish. Aronofsky’s pedal-to-the-metal approach suited Pi, an enigmatic mathematical-philosophical puzzle, and Requiem for a Dream, which might be the greatest drug movie ever because its form is dictated by the character of addiction, which prizes the satisfaction of appetite over everything else. But The Fountain is, in theory, a much more introspective movie—a romantic-philosophical-spiritual quest—and as such, Aronofsky’s approach seems as counterintuitive as zipping through St. Peter’s Basilica on rollerblades. Though the film’s 96-minute running time might sound like a plus, there were many points when I wished The Fountain wasn’t in such a hurry. A film on themes this universal is entitled, even obligated, to linger—not on every moment, but on moments that put allusions and foreshadowings and visual rhymes aside and concentrate on the hero’s feelings at the moment he feels them.

But would a more relaxed, meditative approach have revealed greater depths? I doubt it. The Fountain isn’t as conceptually rich or as philosophically complex as Solaris or 2001 or even The Life Aquatic (to name three movies that strain after cosmic significance). And it’s not as achingly emotional as A Prairie Home Companion, All That Jazz or the dumb but powerful Somewhere in Time, to name three films about death, love and the limits of mortal control. The Fountain’s express-train-to-profundity approach seems more like cover for a movie that’s not as fully conceived or fully felt as it could be. I don’t doubt it was a deeply personal project for Aronofsky; he spent six years struggling to get it made. But what’s onscreen too often struck me as theoretical and not lived-in. Aronofsky’s prismatic story is rooted in primal emotions and sutuations—a man’s grief over his wife’s death, his guilt over not appreciating her in life, and his obsessive five-century quest to defeat death and find a way to reunite with her. On paper, that’s one of the most imaginative illustrations of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ second stage of grief—denial—in movie history. Unfortunately, while The Fountain is dazzlingly constructed (dazzling in the sleight-of-hand sense; more on that in a moment) what’s onscreen feels like a reconstructed version of a legendary movie that was lost or butchered. It’s a movie comprised of indicators of emotions rather than actual emotions—an outline of a heartbreaker.

No one can accuse the film of lacking ambition. The 26th century thread, which has the trippy majesty of a Heavy Metal story, finds the astronaut Tom (Jackman), a pale, bald dreamer, heading toward a dying nebula. His spaceship looks like a soap bubble but functions as a greenhouse; the bottom half of its interior is a hemisphere of earth and nutrients, providing sustenance for Thomas and a mystical gnarled tree whose significance will become clear as the movie unfolds. As he travels, he passes the time by meditating in zero gravity, air-kissing the tree bark (its tiny tendrils, charged by static electricity, straighten and reach for Tom’s lips like neck hairs awakened by gooseflesh) and practicing tai-chi (a lovely image, with Tom’s graceful figure silhouetted against a starfield that seems to be falling like snow behind him). Tom also cuts pieces of bark from the tree and cooks it down into a drug (the closeups suggest the smack preparation scenes in Requiem) and has conversations with a ghostly woman (Rachel Weisz) who keeps entreating him to “finish it.” These rituals feel familiar, even warm, although we don’t yet know their scientific or emotional significance. Aside from the ghost woman’s appearances—which despite their enigmatic presentation, have a thudding, Six Feet Under literalness—you may feel a rush of anticipation.

This sense of promise can also be felt in the movie’s 15th century Latin American sequences, which find Tomas (Jackman), a conquistador, searching for the source of immortality in order to save Queen Isabella (Weisz) from death at the hands of the self-flagellating, heretic-killing religious fanatics who’ve taken over Spain. Like all three sections, this one is conceived in the broad-stroke terms of a hallucination (or a silent movie). Tomas and his men penetrate the vine-choked base of a temple and enter a narrow stone passageway that proves to be a trap; natives surround and decimate them, leaving only brave Tomas to push forward, hacking his way through bushels of enemy soldiers until he reaches the base of a ziggurat’s terraced side. If Matthew Libatique’s voluptuously dark, grainy photography and Clint Mansell’s pulsating synthesized score didn’t clue you in that you’re watching an allegory, the next sequence of shots leave no doubt: from Tomas’ POV, the ziggurat seems to stretch upward forever, practically disappearing into starry sky, and when Aronofsky cuts to a long shot of Tomas’ antlike figure climbing toward the structure’s peak, toward a duel with a soldier guarding the fabled Tree of Life and its immortality-bestowing nectar, the image is so storybook that it earns a grin. It doesn’t look real and it isn’t supposed to. Like the analog special effects in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the Quay Brothers’ films, with their forced perspectives and baroque textures, this sequence’s effects are more emotionally than physically convincing. They’re allegorical images, a simple and evocative as Tom’s Glinda-Good-Witch-of-the-North spaceship and the shimmering galactic panoramas it traverses. The latter, created by English photographer Peter Parks, are not CGI images, but macro closeups of chemicals in a petri dish; versions of the starfield appear elsewhere in the movie, pulsing in the sky over the 15th century matte-painted jungles or writhing on a microscope slide. These handmade effects are both comforting and unnerving; they’re dreamscapes.

The whole movie is a dreamscape—or at least it strives to feel that way. Aronofsky segues from one version of the story to another so subtly that it takes you a minute to realize what period you’re in. The present-tense narrative, which finds driven scientist Tommy (Jackman) running experiments on a monkey as a Hail Mary attempt to cure his brain cancer-stricken wife, Izzi (Weisz again), is photographed in smoky gold hues, as if Tommy’s whole world is trapped in amber. The hero is running from the hard reality of his situation; his marriage is an hourglass, and while the sand is running out, he’s taking wild risks in the lab, testing the patience of his by-the-book supervisor (Ellen Burstyn) and bossing around his mostly colorless subordinates. It’s an obvious setup, very Hollywood Screenwriting 101, reminiscent of the early 90s subgenre of yuppie-prick-laid-low movies in which a workaholic who neglects his family is forced by tragedy to stop and smell the roses. Tommy is a Type A movie star hero—a jerk whose dictatorial obliviousness is indulged because of his domestic tragedy, and because he’s a handsome, sensitive genius. Would his wife Izzi’s death have been any less of a tragedy if he’d been shown as someone who truly appreciated Izzi when she was healthy and spent quality time with her both before and after it became clear that she was a goner?

“Death is a disease just like any other,” he announces. “There is a cure. I will find it.” Talk like this should have word balloons around it. But though I wish I could make a case for Aronofsky as an auteur who’s a better director than dialogue writer, there are too many touches in The Fountain that irritate for reasons that have nothing to do with the words coming out of the actors’ mouths—like having Izzi write a novel (unfinished) that we ultimately discover is the conquistador segment of The Fountain. When workaholic Tommy finally gets around to reading it, he’s so moved by it that he completely changes his attutude toward Izzi’s illness, and begins confronting it rather than evading it. But the story is so reductive that it’s vaguely insulting to Tommy, and on top of that, it confuses the issue. In the Spanish sequence, the Queen specifically asks the Conquistador to leave her in order to go on a quest, but in the present-day sequence, Izzi just wants Tommy to be at her side, even though she’s too much the nobly suffering spouse to come right out and say so. You have to wonder, did Izzi write this novel to let Tommy off the hook for spending all that time in the lab?

Izzi’s saintly, crinkly-smiling character (or lack of character) is a major problem. In the present day story—and in the Conquistador story as well, where she takes the form of Queen Isabella—she’s held up as a Feminine Ideal, not so much a woman as an emblem of warmth and decency, suffering nobly and waiting in vain for her genius-in-denial hubby to catch up with her on the emotional evolution scale. During the film’s first half, I kept hoping that Tommy’s idealization of Izzi would ultimately be accounted for—that her illness would not simply pull Tommy closer, but force him to see her as a flesh-and-blood person rather than a distant ideal of the Good Wife and the Good Life. No such luck. She’s a symbol rather than a person and she remains so throughout. (Weisz isn’t distinctive enough to suggest depths that aren’t there in the script; like costar Jackman, she’s skillful and likable but not especially daring.) The abstract quality of the Tommy-Izzy relationship drains the lifeblood from the movie. It makes you think the worst—that Aronofsky doesn’t feel what he’s showing us—because no true romantic would write a love story so disconnected from life as it’s actually lived.

The fulcrum of the present-day story is a scene where Izzi stops by the lab and asks Tommy to join her on a walk through the season’s first snowfall. He refuses, of course, and we keep seeing his refusal replayed over and over throughout the picture; it’s Aronofsky’s version of the ferry boat monologue from Citizen Kane. But the specificity of this regret is unconnected to anything real; like the Izzi-Tommy relationship in general, it feels like a screenwriter’s device. There’s one shot in the present-day sequence that communicates the sense of love and grief and devotion Aronofsky seeks to conjure: a first-person POV shot of a smiling, healthy, flirty Izzi running away from the camera—i.e., away from Tommy—that’s not tied into any specific event or situation. It’s just an image in his mind, and it’s nearly as powerful as some of the pastoral flashbacks in The Thin Red Line.

But think of how much more powerful it would have been if we’d been given more time to observe Tommy without Izzi. She’s in the movie continuously as a symbol, a ghost and a plot device, which means we rarely sense her absence—and that’s a catastrophic mistake, because absence is the fuel of grief. There should have been more small, lonely moments in The Fountain—moments where we saw Tommy looking around at situations where he was accustomed to seeing his wife and then having to accept that she wasn’t there anymore, or perhaps discovering seemingly insignificant objects that drove the reality of his situation home. (As Billy Joel sings in “Souvenir,” “A picture postcard/A folded stub/A program of the play…”) The image of a man smelling his dead lover’s shirt in Brokeback Mountain is no less blunt than anything in Aronofsky’s film, but it’s so honest and recognizable, so real, that you can’t help connecting it to your own existence and being moved. The Fountain has moments like that, but because Izzi isn’t merely an abstraction, but an abstraction who never stops hanging around in the story and giving the hero advice and instructions (“Finish it”), you don’t get a chance to miss her, much less grasp a loss so great that it would spur Tommy to spend centuries trying to undo it.

As in Requiem for a Dream, Aronofsky builds toward near-simultaneous, parallel climaxes, but only one of the three really resonates—an O. Henry twist in the Conquistador sequence that has a hint of Old Testament perfection; it grants the hero’s wish (in all three segments of the story) while thwarting it. Jackman’s expression is just right—it mixes rage, shock and astonishment, and finally, a sort of beatific acceptance of the fact that he’s part of something larger than himself, indeed larger than his species. But the hard-edged rightness of this climax is effectively cancelled out by the soupy conclusion of the 26th century storyline, a straightforward wish fulfillment lacking the ironic undercurrent that makes the end of the Conquistador section so right. The film’s intricate structure—images echoing images, situations repeated like pop song refrains—at first seems open-ended and mysterious, and therefore promising. But that promise ebbs as the fortune cookie profundities pile up (“Every shadow, no matter how deep, is threatened by morning light”; “Our bodies are prisons for our souls”). Soon enough you realize Aronofsky isn’t just trying to stimulate questions about the great imponderables, he’s actually playing guru and giving you the answers, and the movie you’re watching is essentially a store-bought bereavement card blown up to bigscreen dimensions. Oh, well; it’s the thought that counts.