Sunday, 19 August 2007

review: the fountain (darren aronofsky, 2006)

Reading critical views on Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, I was very strongly reminded of what many of the same critics wrote about another film released a few years ago. Both films premered at the Venice Film Festival, to general disdain. Like The Fountain, the ghost of Stanley Kubrick was repeatedly invoked to explain its grand ambition and ponderous sense of self-importance, while, also like The Fountain, the film's ambiguously spiritual, transcendental themes were dismissed as preposterous and laughable, the film declared emotionless and cold, and ultimately laughed out of theatres. As if to cement the point, both films feature a slightly risque bathtub scene that, for varying reasons, was the focus of tabloid attention on the respective films.

This other film was Jonathan Glazer's Birth (2004), a film that is, to my mind, one of the most well-crafted and fascinating of the past decade; a description which fits The Fountain equally well. I must begin to wonder if many critics' dismissal of the two films, for much the same reasons, is symptomatic of a complete inability or unwillingness to engage with their grand, quasi-spiritual, one can almost say religious (though not in the dogmatic sense) ideas. After all, it does not take any great insight to see that a critical environment that hails such socially worthy but blinkeredly unambitious and safe works of "serious" filmmaking as Paul Greengrass' United 93 and Martin Scorsese's The Departed (both 2006) will not easily adapt to something like The Fountain : it seems as if many established critics are too comfortable in the postmodern, materialist, rationalist status quo to be open to anything that steps outside those boundaries. A film that questions social and political ideologies is radical and daring, but a film that examines deeper assumptions about life and consciousness is, apparently, ridiculous and pretentious.

The Fountain is the third film of Darren Aronofsky's career, and also the third demonstration of flawed but unmistakable genius. This time around, his ambitions have (literally) skyrocketed, and the flaws are writ larger than ever; the successes, however, have become equally majestic and awe-inspiring. Stretching his canvas out into a thousand-year (possibly) science fiction personal odyssey, Aronofsky charges head-on into perhaps the oldest and greatest of subjects: the nature and meaning of death, and how it relates to life and love.

At the core of the story is the relationship between Dr. Tom Creo (Hugh Jackman), a brilliant neuroscientist, and his wife Izzy (Rachel Weisz), who is slowly dying of a brain tumour. Tom's obsessive drive to find some form of miracle cure for his wife is contrasted to her almost serene acceptance of her fate, manifested in the novel she pens. Around and stemming from this story, two other narrative threads intertwine - the story of a sixteenth-century conquistador searching for the tree of life, and of a twenty-sixth-century spacefarer headed for a distant nebula. The connections between the three strands exist not only through the presence of Jackman and Weisz in all three eras, but also through a recurrence of the themes of death and rebirth, love and sacrifice; the thrice-repeated pattern, in different permutations, is of Jackman undertaking a quest to grant eternal life to his beloved - a quest that must end with the acceptance of death and an understanding of its role in the life-cycle of the universe.

The actual, logical connection between the three segments is more difficult to pin down - although, at its heart, the story is much simpler and more logical than many, who have labelled the film incoherent, will have you believe. Its framework, however, does invite considerable thought, and supports a number of conflicting interpretations.

(some spoilers follow in white...highlight to read)

The interpretation that, to me, feels the most plausible and satisfying, is that the sixteenth-century narrative exists only as the novel that Izzy writes and that Tom must finish, as a means of understanding the nature of death and rebirth. The twenty-sixth century narrative, however, is real. Throughout the film we have seen Tom and his team discovering the amazing properties of a new compound that seems to stop the aging process in its tracks; this is hardly the kind of thing that is inserted as a background detail and forgotten about. For five hundred years Tom is unable to come to terms with Izzy's death and unable to finish her novel; understanding finally dawns on him as he travels to the nebula that for her had been a symbol of the afterlife, carrying the tree he himself had planted on her grave. He writes the ending of the novel, where the conquistador dies through the creation of new life in the blossoming flowers, and enters the nebula at the moment of its life-giving, on a universal scale, explosion.

(end spoilers)

It might be true that The Fountain does not have anything new to say about death. And yet, has it ever been told so beautifully, so affectingly? This is a remarkably-constructed and -crafted film, from the interlocking logic of the narratives (creating its own mythology out of various sources, including Mayan and Christian mythologies as well as, undoubtedly, Joseph Campbell), to Clint Mansell's incredible music (surely the best film score in years), to Matthew Libatique's gorgeously dark cinematography and formal compositions, to the unique visual effects, partly achieved through microscopic photography of chemical reactions. It is a film built on a recurring, potently mythic network of imagery encapsulating its core theme, the inseparable intertwining of death and rebirth - evident most clearly in the repeated image of the tree of life, life-giving growth emerging from death. Most remarkable, however, is its deep emotional impact - a mixture of sadness and joy and, ultimately, in its astounding, heart-stopping, unbelievable climax, sheer, spiritual awe. There is an earnestness at the heart of the film which might strike some as pretentious, but which seems to me, in a cultural climate where no form of belief in anything non-rational, or any greater meaning, can be expressed unless regulated by the safety-valve of irony, to be a heartfelt, honest and tortured call for a belief, however momentary, in an all-encompassing, transcendental beauty.

Which is not to say it is a perfect film. Its primary flaw, and it is quite a big one, is that Aronofsky's dialogue often feels leaden, contrived and unnecessarily portentous, with the result that Izzy and Tom never leave an impression on us as living, breathing human beings. The film's plodding, precisely calculated nature gives little space for its characters to live, so the people in the film are rarely more than pieces for Aronofsky to push around in his game. It is a testament to the film's other strengths that this is not enough to destroy our considerable emotional investment in Tom and Izzy's relationship, which is the fulcrum of the entire story; and yet it is not difficult to imagine that The Fountain with a better-realized insight into its central couple would have not only been hands down the best film of last year, but quite possibly one of the cinematic highlights of this decade.

Others have pointed to its artificiality and ponderous sense of self-importance as flaws, but this is an unavoidable part of the approach it must take; this is a mediaeval icon or an ancient hieroglyph of a film, schematically planned out to the smallest thematic and imagistic detail, unconcerned with the day-to-day world, interested solely in its quest for the divine. The price it must pay is constantly treading a fine line between grandeur and silliness; to my mind, the former outweighs the latter resoundingly and conclusively.

As it is, The Fountain is therefore undeniably flawed, and yet, I have no hesitation in choosing a glorious, ambitious but imperfect film such as it is over any number of perfectly-realized blandnesses. In its best moments, of which there are many, it is genuinely, monumentally transcendental, and it only gets better on reflection. It is, ultimately, a heartfelt outpouring of great joy tinged with great sadness, a celebration of love, an earnest meditation on the greatest and most eternal of themes, and a grand, towering piece of cinematic artistry.


Robert said...

Another excellent review - I personally thought that Glazer's 'birth' was a FANTASTIC film as it worked on so many levels and was visually arresting so I will defintely check out the fountain.

Daniel Vella said...

I would say The Fountain is not as perfectly realized as Birth, but it reaches greater heights - I'm not sure which I would call the better of the two, or even if I would want to pick one. As I said in the review, however, I'm somewhat mystified by the critical consensus on both...

Lara said...

I "agree that Birth is a well realised film and apart from that I did actually enjoy it...since watching it however, I've been trying to figure out why it isn't liked too much...the only reason I've managed to come up with is the obvious fact that it is often film theory put into literal practice, and that it is perhaps more of a film for film /theorists/ rather than mainstream film /critics/ that sense the film's form is very often geared towards the academic and one would have to be familiar with or appreciative of academic film theory to even begin to go for it....
Dan, I recall that when the credits rolled one guy actually stood up, waved his arms at the screen and passionately yelled something along the lines of: "DISASTRU! LEQ! ZIBEL!