The Fountain
Reviewed in November 2006
Top Ten List: #10 of 2006 (U.S. releases)

Director: Darren Aronofsky. Cast: Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, Sean Patrick Thomas, Ethan Suplee, Donna Murphy, Ellen Burstyn, Fernando Hernandez, Mark Margolis, Stephen McHattie, Cliff Curtis, Alexander Bisping, Kevin Kelsall, Patrick Vandal, Marcello Bezina. Screenplay: Darren Aronofsky.

Photo © 2006 Warner Bros. Pictures/Regency Enterprises
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more, Death, thou shalt die.

No one is about to confuse Darren Aronofsky with John Donne. Nevertheless, just as clearly, The Fountain represents this outrageously precocious third-time filmmaker's gambit at metaphysical poetry—and also at pre-Columbian mythmaking, science-fictional mindwarp, and Buddhist parable. As I have indicated elsewhere, Matthew Barney's deliberately rarefied Drawing Restraint 9 makes something of a matching set with The Fountain, the year's most conceptually ambitious (if not commercially incongruous) mainstream release. But while Barney's lovers have the mad, fervent, forlorn passion of certain figures in Andrew Marvell, literalizing the notorious injunction to "tear our pleasures with rough strife/ Through the iron gates of life," The Fountain is contemplative, numinous, elusive, in the structure it elaborates as well as the shape of love that it traces. One of the movie's glorious surprises, then, is how broadly it differentiates itself, despite the trademark mannerisms of the colors and camerawork, from the blunt, confrontational, and harshly prescriptive style of Aronofsky's earlier films. The Fountain opts for a certain fragility and porousness between shots and subplots, laying sheets of emotion and implication over top of one another rather than slamming scenes together with the arrogant, thunderclap virtuosity of Requiem for a Dream, and without extending ambiguity all the way to paranoiac ends, as in ?. The cuts here are strongly but enigmatically felt. As the protagonist of Margaret Edson's Wit suffers to learn, what separates life and death at the end of Donne's most celebrated Holy Sonnet is not a period nor an exclamation mark nor even a semi-colon, but a comma. The edits in The Fountain are almost all commas, for all that they mark expansive transitions of epoch and spirit. The film accumulates and expands, growing outward and nesting inward rather than, like most movies, simply barreling forward.

In a film replete with runes and metaphors, and concerned as much as anything with the enigmatic act of writing and its powers to distract, create, mislead, and immortalize, it's hard to verbalize why the movie works so well and exactly how it operates—both despite and because of its evident limitations. To be sure, there's much in The Fountain one can't help wanting to fix: the dingy under-lighting of the laboratory sequences, the truncated narrative and graphic-novel visual conceits of the Inquisition plot, the sentimental patina surrounding the dying Rachel Weisz, and the sour imperialist aftertaste of a conquistador's utterly sympathetic, almost beatific vanquishing of a Mayan priest. And yet, The Fountain resolves and redeems itself as a movie of ripples, radiating generously outward from what is sometimes cheap or unsatisfying in a given image and accruing spectacular emotional potency along the way. Ingenuities in the editing and the script encourage us to read the ancient fable of conquest and the prismatic, shimmering future-tale as two versions, hers and his, of evading death by imagining life. The scientific plotline avoids any dunder-headed impulse to act as a foil against such ardor and creativity, but the stakes of the researcher's failure and the harsh caprices of laboratory timing lend the film its mournful sobriety and furnish an important idea of human limits, if not an insistence upon them.

All of these storylines and motifs, laced together at times by something as simple as a reiterated camera move, allow everything in The Fountain to rhyme internally with everything else. Even the tangible factors of the film's own making—the shrinking budget, the abortive plots, the simply rendered visual effects—are absorbed into this echo chamber, such that The Fountain, at every level, keens and howls with the desperate wish to beat the clock and defy the ledger, to do more with less, to defy the Fates. It's an easy movie to explode with an ounce of cynical response, notwithstanding the unqualified triumphs of its music, its lead performance, and its golden backdrops of cellular life as a galactic frontier. But for a filmmaker who's had trouble breathing life into characters beneath all the fancy plumbing of well-honed technique, The Fountain holds life in impressively high regard, honoring its mysteries by enunciating some of its own. B+

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Original Score: Clint Mansell

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