I like movies that just f—ing go for it. Unabashedly is my favourite adverb. Movies like Magnolia, Amadeus – hell, even Point Break… Better a movie led astray by its convictions than a movie made without conviction, or risk. I’m not about to argue here that The Fountain makes perfect sense, or even that it offers profound insights. But I would argue that it’s worth seeing. It’s going to baffle and (unintentionally) amuse audiences. But my God, is it felt.
Plot is like a Möbius strip in this movie, but suffice to say there are three main strands; one takes place in the 15th century, where Hugh Jackman plays a Spanish conquistador (who talks like Richard Burton) searching for the Tree of Life in the jungles of South America; another plotline sees Hugh Jackman playing a neuroscientist in the 21st century, searching for a cure for his wife’s terminal cancer; the last plot takes place far in the future, where Hugh Jackman floats through space in a giant bubble, nursing a tree.
I know that all this sounds ridiculous. It is. If this movie weren’t made with conviction –made as though its director’s life depended on it – it would be Barbarella. But Darren Aronofsky casts a spell over The Fountain. Good or bad, the movie wills you to look. I can’t recall another recent movie that so absorbs the viewer. There is a sense, as in great fiction, of being there – even when “there” is ludicrous.
Rachel Weisz, the director’s wife, plays Queen Isabella of Spain, a girl called Izzi (dying of a brain tumour) and a girl called Izzi (who floats through space in Hugh Jackman’s giant bubble). She is radiant. Admittedly, her contemporary incarnation marks another entry in Hollywood’s How to Look Good While Dying roster (see Ali McGraw in Love Story), with her elfin smile and her elf-style hat – but, like The Fountain, her integrity runs contrary to aesthetic appearances. She might spout truisms and waffle about Xibalba (the Mayan Underworld), but she has a real erotic charge with Hugh Jackman in their love scenes, and Aronofsky pushes her past that patronizing tone she sometimes gets (as an actress) when she’s explaining Higher Ways of Thinking.
Why three plotlines? Largely hubris, I expect. But three plots do allow this movie to do things that I’ve never seen in other films. There is a constant sense of visual invention – as though you were watching ideas split and form new ideas at every juncture. For every amazing image in one scene, there are ten the very next. Even in the lab where the present-day Hugh Jackman works, the lights pick out the shape of a nebula. There is a shot where the present-day Jackman speeds down a road in a sports car, and the camera looks at the road from upside down, before flipping over to reveal the car’s destination. The same shot is used again, to show the conquistador-Jackman riding down a road on horseback. Mirroring the shots tells the audience there is a connection: in each case Jackman arrives at his destination to be told bad news.
Movies about life and death are always in danger of seeming pretentious. As a director, Darren Aronofsky seems to willfully embrace pretension (so he’s no use). How can The Fountain succeed when it feels so much like a film school project? It even uses a ring to symbolize eternity, for crying out loud! It can’t be any good.
The Fountain is a story about a man whose wife is dying, and how he copes with it. It could have set in 2007, among hospitals and living rooms, made as an indie or a TV movie, restrained and dignified. But then you would have forgotten it. As it is, part space-opera, part historical epic, (whatever its faults) The Fountain is not forgettable. “Death is the road to awe” according to this movie, and – like most things that leave us awestruck – it’s okay to be a bit embarrassed by what you’ve felt.