Note: There will be *spoilers* I don’t think I’d be able to fully analyse this film without spoilers
The Fountain is the first Darren Aronofsky film I watched, at the time when I had just begun my foray into obscure/non-mainstream films, and it is (without a doubt) a masterpiece. A masterpiece in terms of story-telling; cinematography; theme music; and its impact on the viewer.
Possibly part of the reason why its taken me so long to finally get down to writing about it is that there is so much to think about when it comes to this film. (The other part is that I always find it more difficult to write about things I love). If you thought Inception was complicated, this film will seem like an equally (or perhaps more) byzantine puzzle box. Its complexity is not a failing, and nor is it there merely as a pretentious film-making device (as some detractors may assume); the story’s intricacy is one of the strongest reasons to watch this film.
A- The film is set across 3 time periods, with a cycle of reincarnation.
B- The film is set only in the present, and the ‘past’ is merely a portrayal of the story in Izzie’s novel, while the ‘future’ is Tom’s completion of her novel as per her dying wish.
All interpretations, including those not mentioned here, are plausible. For the purpose of this review, I will be focusing on interpretation A & B.
First off, the plot is non-linear (which works brilliantly here – frankly, I don’t believe the film would work quite so well with a linear narrative), but for the purpose of clarity I am going to try and summarise it as moving from A – Z temporally (see next paragraph). At the heart of the film, as Aronofsky has stated, lies a love story between Tom (portrayed by Hugh Jackman) and Izzie (Rachel Weisz). We’re introduced to these characters in the present day at a time of crisis – Izzie is suffering from a terminal illness (a cancer of some sort?), while Tom, her scientist husband, is (in ever-increasing desperation) searching for a cure. This intersects with the past and (what is presumably) the future.
The story is set in three time periods:
- Past or Izzie’s Novel ‘The Fountain’ (Spain, 1500s/16th Century): Spain and its Queen Isabella are under threat from the Inquisitors. Tomas, the Queen’s loyal conquistador and betrothed is tasked with finding the Mayan Tree of Life and thus securing immortality for the Queen and himself.
- Present Day (Presumably, somewhere in the USA, in the early 21st Century?): Izzie is terminally ill, and Tom is searching for a cure; trialing experimental treatment after experimental treatment as time “waits for now man”, each moment that passes more precious than the last, and each day death drawing ever closer.
- Future or a Metaphor for Tom’s Journey of Grief (Somewhere in the cosmos, 26th Century?): Tommy, travelling in an enclosed biosphere containing the dying Tree of Life, nears a star about to go supernova (presumably, Xibalba – this will be explained later)
Mythological and religious references abound in the film – the most obvious perhaps being that of Orpheus and Eurydice, the undertones of which are most clear in the present day (Tom/Izzie) plot. The culmination of this storyline has the same impact as the final moments of the Greek myth – the sense of desperation, inevitability and defeat when so close to success is deeply affecting. The film is Tom’s journey from the first stage of grief, denial, to the last, acceptance.
The film draws on various spiritual philosophies, in particular of the Judeo-Christian traditions and Buddhism. The film opens with a paraphrasing of Genesis 3:24 (“Therefore, the Lord God banished Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden and placed a flaming sword to protect the tree of life“), reflecting Aronofsky’s idea that The Fountain is ultimately a film about mortality and the eternal human quest for immortality – the paradox of mortal creatures unable to accept their mortality -And yet, that mortality is the very thing that makes humans human.
The film is titled ‘The Fountain‘ but there is no literal fountain to be found in the film. Instead, the Tree of Life is the metaphoric fountain – the life-giving force. The Tree is presented from two philosophical lenses – the Judeo-Christian and the Mayan – although it is a recurring theme in various myths and religions globally.
In the film’s Judeo-Christian perspective, the Tree of Life is the seemingly unattainable but forever-sought-after fountain of youth/immortality. The Biblical Fall implies that Adam & Eve (here symbolically represented by Tom & Izzie) are doomed to roam the world as mortals, forever prevented access to the Tree of Life – another form of ‘forbidden knowledge’, one which Tom tries desperately to uncover. As Tom promises, “Death is a disease, it’s like any other. And there’s a cure. A cure – and I will find it”
In Jewish Kabbalah, the Tree of Life is considered a diagrammatic description of the process of Creation. It begins with Endless Light and an explosion of energy (reflected in the chiaroscuro film shots, and xibalba going supernova) and moves towards wisdom and understanding and the journey of Man back towards his spiritual origin (Tom’s journey). This is a very brief and superficial explanation – wikipedia, usefully, explains it better. The perfection of this film lies in how all aspects of it are constructed to flow well together, as seen in its use of this symbolism.
In the Mayan story of creation, as told in the film, life and death are irrevocably intertwined. First Father (echoed as Adam, the First Man) sacrifices himself to create the Tree of Life, out of which all of existence grew. “His body became the trees’ roots. They spread and formed the earth. His soul became the branches rising up forming the sky. All the remained is first father’s head. His children hung in in the heavens creating Xibalba”
This concept of death as regeneration – a part of an endless cycle of life, death and rebirth – is also presented by Izzie recalling something she was told by her tour guide, Moses Morales regarding his own father’s demise, while researching for her book, “He said that if they dug his father’s body up, it would be gone. They planted a seed over his grave. The seed became a tree. Moses said his father became a part of that tree. He grew into the wood, into the bloom. And when a sparrow ate the tree’s fruit, his father flew with the birds. He said… death was his father’s road to awe. That’s what he called it. The road to awe.”
This is the ironic lesson that Tomas the conquistador must learn, and through him Tom (who continues Izzie’s novel after her death). He believes that Queen Isabella and him shall live together forever, but upon his consumption of the sap of the mythic Tree of Life, he experiences regeneration – regeneration that consumes his body to entangle it forever with the Tree itself – he shall live forever, but not as he imagined.
The Tree of Life imagery continues with Tommy and the Tree in his biosphere. The Tree of Life is dying, and he is rationing its sap to live a little long, long enough to reach their destination (Xibalba). Xibalba here signifies the dying star (but is also the name of the Mayan underworld), the explosion of which spells new life according to Tommy’s reassurance to the Tree “Through that last dark cloud is a dying star. And soon enough, Xibalbia will die. And when it explodes, it will be reborn. You will bloom”
But despite his efforts, the Tree dies and is only revived after Tommy’s annihilation – repeating the pattern of death and life. This is again seen in Tom fulfilling Izzie’s wish and planting the seed of a tree above her grave. To die is to pass on life force, according to the film. It is not an act of destruction but one of creation – pantheistic undertones are present.
Buddhist elements are also numerous, but perhaps the most obvious is the image of Prince Gautama shaving his head. It may seem odd to focus on a character’s hair but one notices that hair is an important part of the male protagonist’s transformation. Tomas is shown with shoulder length hair, Tom’s hair is short, and Tommy has no hair. This references the story of how Prince Gautama (Buddha) cut off his hair after his enlightenment to signify a severance of the hold of the material world on his consciousness. Similarly, as we move from Tomas and his worldly motivations to Tom and his personal motivations to Tommy and his sublimation into something higher, the character’s physical transformation mirrors this.
Cinematography: This film is a visual marvel (*ahem*, in case you didn’t read it earlier, the descriptor for this film is masterpiece). If one ever doubted Aronofsky’s craft (although most would hail him as a very skillful auteur), this film would lay those doubts to rest forever. Aronofsky and Matthew Libatique have created something unique here.
The art direction of the film is marvellously chiaroscuro. As the story moves forward and the characters develop, they are shot differently: initially, Tomas is shown in shadow, as Tom he is presented in muted tones, and finally as Tommy he is illuminated in the overpowering glare of the star – possibly representing the characters movement from a darkened/unenlightened state to one of enlightenment, from denial, fear and despair to joyful acceptance, from dreaded mortality to (in the words of Izzie) “death as an act of creation”.
Conversely, Izzie is presented illuminated by bright light, a halo surrounding her, representing her alignment with higher consciousness/enlightenment, but also her significance to Tomas/Tom/Tommy. For Tomas, she is his Queen and his love; for Tom his beloved wife; for Tommy a ‘golden’ memory, a guiding light. She seems ethereal and otherworldly. As Queen Isabella, she is presented obscured by a screen; as Izzie bathed in white light; and finally as a fleeting memory that fuels an imperative impulse.
Lighting isn’t limited to the characters in focus. The entire ‘past’ plot is shot in rich, dark tones; the ‘present day’ in clearer tones – more akin to actual sight; and the ‘future’ in bright shades of white and gold against the backdrop of space. This resonates with how the story and the characters move from dark places, emotionally and mentally, to brighter states.
Interestingly, the theme of ‘light’ isn’t restricted to literal lighting – it is also used in the sense of weight/being weighed down. The ‘past’ feels dense and oppressive when Tomas and his fellow soldiers wander in thick, dark forests. In stark opposition, Tommy moves weightlessly through space.
This is further enhanced by crucifix imagery haunting both Tomas and Tom. Indeed, it becomes something of a leit-motif. The film opens with an extreme close-up of an ornate crucifix, before which Tomas is praying. Soon after, we see victims of the brutal Inquisition, lying in poses resembling the cross from a distance. In the ‘present day’ storyline, we see a huge grey cross but as the camera zooms out it is revealed to be a pattern behind Tom on the doors of a lift. The repetition of the crucifix image is a visual manifestation of Tomas/Tom’s suffering – his ‘cross to bear’. Fascinatingly, Aronofsky talked about how the structure of the film was planned and sculpted as a three dimensional crucifix as well (Aronofsky describes it as a ‘cruciform’).
Using trick photography rather than resorting to CGI (which, when done poorly is just awful – as in The Great Gatsby, 2013) is an inspired decision.
Peter Parks, a specialist in macro-photography, created the gorgeous space imagery using fluid dynamics. This works so well for the film – not only is it a visual feast, it gives an impression of effortless expanse and the melting of the physical and meta-physical.
The Soundtrack: Oh my goodness! How is it that I had not heard of Clint Mansell before this film? The soundtrack is sheer perfection. If I thought Has Zimmer was good – this music is revelatory, transportive, transformative, goose-bump-inducing, meditative, powerful, perfect ( Did I say perfect already?) … Each composition evokes something of its related theme. For instance, for the track Death is the Road to Awe, there is a sense of urgency; for The Last Man, there is a meditative poignancy that will stay with you – a strange, haunting mix of grief and beauty (as embodied by the film); for Xibalba, there is longing and resignation; for Together We Will Live Forever there is a calm, muted joy – it has something of a farewell lullaby about it (I believe it plays over the end credits). Even if you don’t watch the film, please listen to the soundtrack.
The Fountain is a film that I cannot recommend highly enough (my friends, to whom I have already mentioned it countless times, can attest to this). Well worth watching if you’re looking for something intellectually stimulating, challenging, unusual and unforgettable. The ending is sheer perfection (and very moving) – the film continually draws on and blends various mythologies and philosophies, but by the end it has succeeded in creating a epic of its own; leaving the viewer with much to consider.
I’ve only recently discovered that there is a graphic novel of The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky & Kent Williams) – I cannot wait to get my hands on it! The artwork is said to be exquisite. How can one doubt that after seeing the film?
Post Script: This film makes me want to take up Film Studies. I would happily write a dissertation on it.
This is a woefully brief review – there’s so much more to the film as well, but I think this is the best I can do in trying to explain why I think its wonderful.
Further Reading – The Fountain Explained