The Fountain

Izzi (Rachel Weisz) wants her husband Tom (Hugh Jackman) to walk with her in the first snowfall of the year, as they’ve always done. He would like to, but he can’t: he’s busy trying to find a cure for the brain tumor that’s killing her. The Fountain, a visually enthralling and emotionally overpowering fantasia by writer-director Darren Aronofsky (π, Requiem for a Dream), seems to have baffled many impatient critics and left many audiences cold. At this point, a lone reviewer’s quest to save the movie is almost as challenging as Tom’s quest to rescue Izzi. But I will try, and I will state it plainly: If you have ever taken my advice to see a movie and found yourself grateful you’d seen it, please go see The Fountain before it leaves theaters. I don’t do this often, but there may not be much time left.

Aronofsky has fashioned a spiritual triptych out of the story’s main conflict, a doctor’s drive to discover a remedy for his dying wife. Izzi is writing a book, called The Fountain, about a conquistador (Jackman) whose queen (Weisz) sends him to find the Tree of Life, whose sap gives eternal life. There is also the tale of a futuristic man (Jackman) speeding across the cosmos in a bubble that also contains the Tree. Yet underneath all the symbolic trappings is a very simple parable about how love can transcend death because it gives life meaning. That’s what Tom, throwing himself into research and missing his chance to spend time with Izzi in her final days, must learn.

I admired Aronofsky’s 1998 debut π, but his 2000 Requiem for a Dream seemed trendy and shallow, not honestly felt. The Fountain is Aronofsky’s triumph, an intoxicating blend of luscious cinematography (by Matthew Libatique) and brooding score (by Clint Mansell). Every frame hums with passion; like 2001 and Solaris (both versions), this is an art film in sci-fi dress, speaking eternal truths in the language of light shows. The actors shoulder the three-story burden effortlessly. By now we know Rachel Weisz can be winsome and enchanting, but here she brings a brittle kind of bliss to a woman who has come to terms with her own passing. The real revelation is Hugh Jackman, who jumps without fear into the sort of role that could’ve turned him into a laughingstock — he brings emotional urgency and transparency to the saga.

The Fountain is a fragile egg, easily cracked in cynical times. It’s sure to be misread as a soft-headed, muddled New Age treatise, but what it actually has to say is a good deal more tough-minded: that you had better love honestly and well in this life, because you don’t get a do-over. Death can be transcended but not conquered or denied. In all three incarnations, Tom is in perpetual motion, running away from his loved one towards something he believes will guarantee eternal life with her. Even his future-self — having lived centuries thanks to his medical breakthrough — turns away from the spirit of Izzi to hurtle through space towards Xibalba, the dying nebula wherein, he believes, he will be reunited with Izzi. But really the future Tom exists only in Tom’s mind — a cautionary tale of a literal bubble boy, sealed off from life and fixated on an impossible dream — just as the conquistador Tomas lives only in Izzi’s imagination. As in The Fisher King, the characters construct fantasy to process painful reality. The results may strike some as pretentious and others, like me, as adventurous and desperately moving.

Approach The Fountain as a love story informed by a grab bag of philosophies — Christian, Buddhist, Pagan, Mayan, take your pick — with sumptuous images to match, and you’ll have the key to its eternal life. It’s really nothing more complicated than the story of a couple, one of whom embraces life and so embraces death as a part of life, the other of whom tries to control life and death and is ill-equipped to deal with either. It’s a simple story told with Zen directness, its fingers deep in the age-old questions, its eyes and ears wide open to the sensual potential of cinema. For my money, The Fountain is the best that American film has to offer this year. If more movies equally daring and powerful are to be made, this one needs your support.

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