The Movie Mezzanine Filmmaker Retrospective series takes on an entire body of work–be it director’s, screenwriter’s, or otherwise–and analyzes each portion of the filmography. By the final post of a retrospective, there will be a better understanding of the filmmaker in question, the central themes that connect his/her works, and what they each represent within the larger context of his/her career. This time, we are taking a look at the short, recent, yet incredibly distinctive list of films from Darren Aronofsky.
Where to even begin with this one…
The Fountain–what was meant to be Aronofsky’s splash into mainstream, Hollywood filmmaking–was originally supposed to be a hundred-or-so million dollar epic starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett that spanned thousands of years, set everywhere from Mayan ruins to outer space, and with three intertwining stories depicting the eternal struggle between life and death.
A project this ambitious for a mega-budget studio film was simply not meant to be. Brad Pitt left the project to star in the safer, more generic Troy, and the film was subsequently shut down. But like all of the protagonists he’s written, Aronofsky doesn’t give up so easily, even if it means his downfall. He rewrote the script to accommodate a lower budget, got Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz to replace the original leads, and ended up getting the damn thing made.
And the result was one of the most divisive films of all time. When it premiered at Cannes for press and critics, it was met with a choir of boos. Meanwhile, when it was premiered in that very same festival for regular audiences, it received a standing ovation from the crowd. When it finally released for the public in theaters, it bombed at the box office and received none other than a 50% consensus rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And now, as more than 6 years have passed, it’s garnered something of a cult-following.
To many, it’s considered Aronofsky’s one true failure. To others, it’s a fascinatingly ambitious failure that’s more admired than enjoyed. And for weirdos like me, it’s a modern masterpiece. For today’s spoiler-filled installment of The Darren Aronofsky Retrospective, we take a gander at the director’s much-maligned, increasingly-loved, almost totally misunderstood gem, The Fountain.
“Our bodies are prisons for our souls. Our skin and blood, the iron bars of confinement. But fear not. All flesh decays. Death turns all to ash. And thus, death frees every soul.”
In case you didn’t figure it out the last two times, the main theme connecting every one of Darren Aronofsky’s films is of obsession, with each one representing different types. Pi dealt with the direct obsession of mathematics and patterns, and how they related to the construction of the universe. Requiem for a Dream was about the visceral obsessions caused by drug addiction, and how those very desires and euphorias ended up deteriorating the mind.
Meanwhile, the obsession at the center of The Fountain might be the most outlandish one Aronofsky has ever put to screen: The three protagonists of The Fountain are each on an existential quest to defeat Death. No, not the Grim Reaper, but the very concept of Death itself. No more dying, no more grief, just the comfort of existence outside of the great beyond. And you thought Ellen Burstyn was off her rocker for trying to fit into a skinny red dress.
The film is broken up into three separate stories, each one intercut and connected with the others in a style that was definitely a clear inspiration for the 2012 film Cloud Atlas, and with each segment starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz in the lead roles. The one set in the 1500s follows a Spanish Conquistador named Tomas (Jackman) who is searching for the fabled Tree of Life so he could save his beloved Queen (Weisz) from the Inquisition. 500 years later, in the present day, a doctor named Tommy Creo (Also Jackman) is attempting to search for a cure for his wife Izzy’s cancer before she (Also Weisz) eventually succumbs to the disease. Another 500 years later, an unnamed astronaut (Credited as Tom, played again by Jackman) is floating in the far reaches of space in a biosphere holding the Tree of Life. As he journeys to the mythical nebula of Xibalba, he’s haunted by memories of a ghostly Izzy, who continually goads him to look back at the past and “Finish it.” Whatever that means.
When the film originally released in 2006, the main criticisms leveled against it regarded its ambition. That it attempted to tell this grand, epic story spanning a thousand years that dealt with the metaphysical and the existential, using a mixture of Judeo-Christian and Mayan religious texts to give the story a grand, majestic, mythological stature… and that the movie ultimately crumbled under the weight of its myriad ideas. And here’s the thing: The critics are, in a way, kind of right. At 90 minutes, there was no way it could really expand on its concepts in a way that would satisfy those hungering for something with a surplus of philosophical depth, nor would it be able to capture the full breadth and scope of a story set within a 1000 year time-frame.
And yet, the film is a masterpiece, at least in the eyes of this overly romantic critic with a penchant to deeply respect anything of enormous ambition. Why? Because even with all the religious and philosophical mumbo-jumbo weighing on the film, they are ultimately not the main focus. What appears on the surface to be an odyssey through time, the cosmos, and the cycle of life itself, is in actuality one of the most deeply personal films of all time, next to classics like The 400 Blows and 8 1/2, as well as modern works of brilliance like The Tree of Life, Synecdoche New York, and Holy Motors. What may seem at first glance like a 2001: A Space Odyssey quickly reveals itself to be something more emotionally rich: A profoundly personal depiction of grief and its effects on the human psyche.
To understand what makes The Fountain such a personal endeavor for Aronofsky requires a small tidbit of backstory: One of the inspirations of the film was actually Aronofsky’s own experiences with dealing with mortality. In interviews, he’s stated how, in 1999, both of his parents were diagnosed with cancer when he was just thirty years old. Upon this discovery, he was forced to come to terms with his own mortality at a relatively early age, and then got the idea of a man attempting to save a loved one from an illness. He shared his idea to Ari Handel, a college friend who would later earn a PhD in neuroscience and become Aronofsky’s co-writer for the film, and the idea eventually blossomed into the story of a man attempting to cure the ultimate disease: Death.
As stated before, the initial criticisms were that of a film that didn’t know how to properly convey its numerous ambitious ideas. In reality, what these critics didn’t know was that this wasn’t a film about unlocking the secrets of life, death, and the meaning of the universe. Rather, The Fountain is a film about how we process death, and the existential crises that happen not within the vast reaches of the cosmos but within our very own subconscious.
The film has three protagonists, each one attempting to stop the process of dying from stealing away a loved one. Tomas must find the Tree to rescue his Queen, Tommy must discover a cure to save his Wife, and Tom must reach Xibalba to restore the Tree. But the authenticity of the stories is constantly toyed with as the film progresses. At first, we seem to accept that there’s some kind of Cloud Atlas thing going on where the soul of the Conquistador passed down to Tommy the neuroscientist, who may in fact be the younger version of the Tom we see in the future storyline (given the flashbacks to his wife). But then, we see that the Conquistador story is actually part of Izzy’s book. So that leaves the present-day and future storylines as the “real” canon, right? Soon, it doesn’t seem that way when Tom the astronaut starts having visions of the Queen of Spain urging him to “Finish it” as well.
When trying to figure out what this all means as someone expecting a film similar to 2001 where there’s philosophical, cosmological subtext to be found, there will inevitably be disappointment. Upon seeing it for what it actually is, however, it’s an emotionally rewarding experience. Izzy’s book (Which is titled, what else, The Fountain) depicting Tomas the Conquistador’s search for the Tree is much richer when seen from Izzy’s point of view of writing it. The casting of Jackman and Weisz as characters in the story is key to this as well. Izzy is clearly writing the book as a means of coping with her own mortality, and leaves the last chapter blank so Tommy can finish it and learn the lessons she did himself.
This leaves the future storyline, which is much more enigmatic in its nature. There are many good theories on what the space-set story represents, but the one that makes the most thematic sense is this: The story of Tom the astronaut is the final chapter of Izzy’s book, the one that Tommy is “finishing”, in which Tom ends his journey by learning to literally give up his quest and find peace in death. The result is a multi-layered depiction of grief that creates a strong emotional arc for the central character of Tommy.
Tommy must deal with the grief of his wife’s death by literally looking back into the past–both figuratively with Izzy’s book, and literally with the lesson Izzy was trying to teach him–in order to finish the pain of his grief. Meanwhile, in order to actually do so, he has to end it himself by finishing Izzy’s book and killing off Tomas, a character Izzy clearly meant to represent Tommy. But that wasn’t enough.
The creation of Tom the astronaut means many things to me. It’s ultimately the most direct visualization of the grieving process in the film: A single man, alone in the vast nothingness of space, with nothing else to keep him company but the Tree, a reminder of how he failed to save her, and a symbol of his unwillingness to let go of his lover’s memory. He traverses to Xibalba, a golden nebula where stars are born, its glow wrapping around Tom and his biosphere, teeming with a liveliness that he ultimately rejects in order to go further on his journey. As he ascends, he’s haunted by memories of Izzy & forced to confront the vastness of the cosmos and, as a result, the enigma of what lies beyond the grave. Finally, he reaches the star at the center: A dying star that, as Izzy pointed out in her research of Mayan culture, represents the Underworld in their mythology. To Tom, on the other hand, it’s the physical representation of the truth behind death that he must exploit to revive the Tree, and thus, defeat Death itself.
Instead of doing that, however, he sees the Queen of Spain, who was supposed to just be in Izzy’s book meant to teach Tommy his lesson, and in that moment he finally understands: He says, “I’m going to die,” with a sense of relief and deep satisfaction in his trembling, quivering voice. And through the lessons of the past, Tom can finally accept his destiny in the future.
However, the most fascinating thing about Tom’s journey is not how he comes to embody Tommy’s emotional arc. There’s actually more to it than just that. For example, if you were reading Izzy’s book, wouldn’t you find it odd that as you’re reading this fictionalized account of a Conquistador during the years of the Spanish Inquisition, you’re introduced to a character in the far future that’s never been referenced to before, haunted by memories of a character never seen before? But then, a realization: The memory that haunts Tom is Izzy, who is definitely not a fictional character in this movie’s universe. So imagine yourself reading this book, and in the final chapter, this character who you’ve never met before is mourning the death of the author of the very book you’re currently reading.
At that point, it becomes absolutely clear: Tom is not an embodiment of Tommy’s grief. Rather, Tommy literally wrote himself into the story. Think about it, in order to complete both the book and his emotional arc/grieving process, he had to insert himself into the narrative in order to externalize his grief and overcome it. If that’s not an apt metaphor for an artist like Darren Aronofsky making a deeply personal experience about coping with mortality, then nothing is.
The Fountain isn’t a film about unlocking the secrets of the universe. It’s a film, like his feature debut Pi, about learning to live without them. Search for order, and only chaos will infect your life. Embrace the chaos, however, and the world feels like it has more order than ever before.
So that’s ultimately what makes The Fountain something akin to Aronofsky’s 8 1/2, but how does the film employ his signature techniques?
If you’d seen just Pi and Requiem for a Dream, you’d almost be totally unaware that this was an Aronofsky film. Whereas those films were gritty and kinetic, The Fountain is vibrant, fantastical, and more gradual in its pacing. The film marks a huge evolution for Aronofsky’s style, displaying the first real proof of his incredible range as a director. He has a Danny Boyle-esque way of being able to assimilate into almost any kind of genre or style of filmmaking while retaining his own signature, distinct stamp on the project.
As different as the film feels at first, there are numerous techniques that remain the same. Matthew Libatique returns as Aronofsky’s director of photography for the third time in a row, saturating the film with a majestic, golden color palette. Meanwhile, the lighting and production design litter the film with little touches to each story that subtly connect the stories in interesting, visual ways. Some are much more noticeable, like a shot of a Mayan ruin turning out to be just a painting in the present-day storyline; while others are much more subtle, like a grouping of Christmas lights in the background that makes a present-day scene resemble the starry scenes with the biosphere in the future storyline.
This kind of attention to detail was what brought us into the mindset of Pi‘s protagonist and connected the stories of the four protagonists in Requiem for a Dream. The Fountain‘s aesthetic, on the other hand, accomplishes both. Much like the golden nebula that Tom must traverse through to confront his mortality, the colors give even the most mundane settings a kind of ethereal beauty and, in its own strange way, menace. It’s almost as if the world is being engulfed by the nebula itself, representing the protagonists’ ever-remaining fear that death is constantly encroaching towards all that he holds dear.
Aronofsky once again totally submerges us into the mindsets of his characters, while also simultaneously being aware of their flaws. As gorgeous as the visuals are, they actually represent a kind of paranoia for the protagonists. It’s almost as if Aronofsky is saying that death is not a dark presence, but a beautiful force that we as humans shun by default.
Of course, just a visual approach to the characters isn’t enough, and Aronofsky’s other staple of directing actors to their highest potential is evident here as well. This is easily the best performance(s) of Hugh Jackman’s career: Always sincere, always passionate, and effectively conveying that he’s playing the kind of men who are so single-minded in their pursuits that when one of them, in this case Tommy, finds a serum that can possibly prevent aging, he outright dismisses it because it can’t cure his wife’s brain tumor. And we totally buy into it because Jackman does not shy away from the fact that, as sincere and passionate as his three characters are, they’re almost reprehensible in their own way.
Instead of finding peace with the situation and comforting his wife during her final moments, Tommy constantly goes back to work so he could find a way to cure the incurable. On top of that, he seems outright dismissive of his own wife’s research. The scene that really brought the message home that Tommy is kind of an asshole was the one in a museum about Mayan culture, where Izzy is telling him about Mayan concepts of “Death as an act of Creation”, and he simply reflects them off, making candid, snarky asides rather than thinking on them like his wife clearly wants him to.
Further conveying this is in the scene of Izzy’s death, in which he continues to cling to his clearly-deceased wife. He performs CPR, repeats “Don’t die! Don’t Die!” as desperately as he could, and–in an almost cruel detail by Aronofsky–he performs mouth-to-mouth on her. This particular detail is not portrayed in a flattering light, as he’s almost slobbering all over her in his attempts to sustain her life. If scenes like that aren’t enough to convey that Tommy is completely imperfect, I don’t know what is.
And yet, Jackman’s Tommy isn’t totally deplorable either because of his aforementioned sincerity and passion. If he is acting purely on his own interests without regard for his wife’s own peace of mind, it’s solely because he loves and cares about her that much–almost too much–and it’s conveyed wonderfully in Jackman’s performance.
One of the best scenes in the film is the one after Izzy’s funeral, where Tommy is now alone in his home and remembers that his wedding ring is missing, a symbol of his own ignorance. Refusing to let go of Izzy, he literally tattoos a ring on his finger so that he can never lose it again. And when Jackman cries, he really goes for it. This isn’t the typical Hollywood sob where a single tear streams down the actor’s cheek. Instead, Jackman sniffles and wheezes through the scene in pure despair, his eyes turning completely bloodshot and his face whimpering like a baby that hasn’t been breast-fed in weeks. It’s a performance that comes purely from the heart, and the perfect kind for a project that’s as personal as this.
And before you ask me about the visual effects of the film, they pretty much speak for themselves. I mean, just look at these screenshots!
However, one of the few things that differentiates The Fountain from the rest of Aronofsky’s filmography is that Tommy might be the only Aronofsky character who doesn’t end with cruel punishment, instead reaching salvation and ultimately finding peace with himself. Much like Pi, The Fountainis ultimately about what we sacrifice in our search for coherence in a chaotic universe. Except whereas Pi‘s protagonist had to sacrifice every semblance of his humanity in order to gain peace of mind, Tommy undergoes a transformation and an arc that brings him to a literal embracing of death so he could regain peace of mind.
Looking back, this sort of development makes sense considering this is a story about personal introspection, and ultimately, an existential crisis doesn’t mean squat if the character doesn’t evolve from it. The same can be applied to Aronofsky himself, who clearly has a deep connection to what’s on screen. And the manner in which Tommy undergoes this realization is yet another virtuosic “montage” not unlike the one employed at the end of Requiem for a Dream.
Another staple of Aronofsky’s films is what I like to call “The Crescendo”, the final moments of an Aronofsky film in which everything continually builds and builds in intensity with the help of a Clint Mansell score and symphonic editing; bringing together numerous working elements into one cohesive whole. The final 10-15 minutes of The Fountain–set to what is perhaps the best track Mansell has ever composed, ”Death is the Road to Awe”–is one of Aronofsky’s best “crescendos” alongside Requiem for a Dream‘s finale.
Much like how Requiem constantly cut between numerous different stories at completely different settings in order to unify all four protagonists’ misery, The Fountain accomplishes that feat on a much grander scale. As Aronofsky cuts between the three separate time periods in segmented fashion, Mansell’s music steadily amps up in rhythm and volume as the time periods blur together. A Mayan temple guardian sees a vision of Tom the astronaut, Tomas the conquistador sees the star of Xibalba as soon as he drinks of the sap of the Tree of Life, Izzy takes a seed from the newly bloomed Tree and gives it to Tommy, etc. But what’s just as effective is that the score contains a period of absolute silence right before maybe loudest, most sudden orchestral cue in the history of cinema, right when Xibalba’s star blows into supernova. Aronofsky’s films usually end in a manner much like an explosion; The Fountain is the only one of his films that ends with a literal one.
As disorienting as it this finale is, the formalistic grandeur is enough to wash over you and allow a sense of awe at what’s transpiring on scene. It’s so deftly directed that it ultimately doesn’t matter whether you really “understand” it or not. Just letting Mansell’s lucid tones and the evocative visuals do the work is practically all that’s needed to “get” it.
Perhaps it ultimately doesn’t matter what The Fountain means, because what matters most is 1.) What it means to Aronofsky himself, and 2.) If it still works as a stand-alone experience. For my money, The Fountain is Aronofsky’s most beautiful, poignant work, and my personal favorite of his films. Normally when discussing a divisive film, I’d tend to point out that many will most likely disagree, but the fact that more and more people are discovering The Fountain‘s true meaning speaks to how exquisitely layered and resonant the film is. The Fountain is utterly brilliant, and perhaps in twenty more years or so, it will be recognized for the utterly gorgeous masterpiece that it is.
Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that it was deemed a failure back in 2006. And as such, as misunderstood as the film was at the time, Aronofsky still needed something of a “comeback” film to pick himself back up from the commercial and critical failure that The Fountain brought. His solution for a comeback film: A film about the obsession of comebacks. Typical, typical, Mr. Aronofsky.
Stay tuned next time, for a look at Darren Aronofsky’s Mickey Rourke vehicle: The Wrestler.