On the eve of the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, I thought it would be fun to look back at a review I wrote for Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, a film almost unanimously dismissed upon its appearance at TIFF 2006, and which might have torpedoed the ambitious young filmmaker's career if it weren't followed by the much celebrated The Wrestler, which had its North American premiere at TIFF 2008. Aronofsky's Black Swan is among the most anticipated films playing at this year's festival.
***Six years after Requiem for a Dream, Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain finally arrives with a hefty load of extra-filmic baggage –an infamously protracted and tumultuous production, boos at the Venice Film Festival– and a premise so dazzlingly pretentious as to guarantee responses even more polarized that those that met its predecessor. Yet if this finds the right audience –probably small, probably fans of Ken Russell films, Herman Hesse novels, CG Jung, Joseph Campbell and psychotropic substances– it will in its peculiar way be embraced as the sort of wildly flawed, improbably ambitious gem that comes along only rarely, a phenomenon akin to a comet, the sighting of some endangered beast, or a functioning health care system.
The Fountain’s structure is tripartite and intrinsically circular. In one strand we find Thomas (Hugh Jackman), a genetic scientist desperate to shrink a tumour in a monkey’s brain while his wife Izzi (Rachel Weisz) dies from some terrible illness and composes an enigmatic novel in laughably immaculate calligraphy. In the second, Tomas (again, Jackman) is a conquistador charged with finding the Mayan tree of life in the New World for the lovely Queen Isabel (Weisz). In the third, Tom (yep, Jackman) is the lone inhabitant of some hermetic ball adrift in space, haunted by voices and doing kung fu against the stars. These narratives dove-tail and are compressed into 96 minutes, an impressively taut running time that renders two of these strands, not inappropriately, into virtual cinematic haikus. Visual dynamics dominate: long-shots press up against extra-tight close-ups; gaseous portals seep through the jaundiced glow of space, recalling old sci-fi paperback covers; terrifyingly fecund jungles give way to stark wintry plains. The aesthetic is alternately seductive, chillingly lonely and somewhat oppressive.
Dialogue tends to be awkward, scenes contrived and characters more symbolic than recognizable. What’s of substance here is the fluid realization of deeply primal themes, thus Aronofsky thinks nothing of having a scene where Jackman stabs a tree and out flows the juice of immortality! Which looks suspiciously like cum. Weisz is required mostly to be beatific, yet Jackman’s unruly performance somehow ascends to operatic heights, matching Aronofsky’s lofty themes with vivid romantic fortitude. For every scene that courts ridicule there’s another that, call me crazy, is strangely, profoundly moving. In his desire for everlasting life and love, Tom sacrifices immediacy, and his is a tragedy written in glyphs, not naturalistic gestures.
Because it aspires to fuse images and music into an expression of abstract spiritual and mythical concepts, The Fountain will, for some, invite only mockery and dismissal. But against my more sober criteria, I found myself kind of swept up in it, beguiled by its preposterous beauty and over-earnest transcendentalism, its inarticulate fatalism that finally speaks to our innate sense of eternal return. I can accept or even welcome whatever jabs at its abundant silliness others might make, but I still can’t deny that I left the film feeling eerily connected to that guy sitting cross-legged in his little ball.