In The Fountain, Darren Aronofsky's third feature (after Pi and Requiem for a Dream), Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz play star-crossed lovers in three different eras. Back in the 16th century, Weisz is Queen Isabel, a glowingly beautiful monarch menaced by the cruel intolerance of the Spanish Inquisition. (I know, I didn't expect it either.) Jackman is Tomas, a conquistador of sad countenance and unruly beard, hacking his way through the Central American jungles in search of the Tree of Life and in the service of his queen.
In the present, Jackman is a clean-shaven research scientist named Tom Creo, obsessively trying to develop a cure for the disease that threatens the life of his glowingly beautiful wife, Izzi (Weisz). Five hundred years in the future, Tom's head is completely bald, and he floats through the air. Weisz, if I'm not mistaken, has turned into a tree.
The three stories are not told in linear order, but in a circular, swirling pattern that suggests a mandala or a Mayan calendar. Circles also figure prominently in Aronofsky's visual scheme, and he seems to be trying, with a seriousness of purpose that few American filmmakers attempt, to subvert the essentially sequential nature of film. Like a story by Jorge Luis Borges, The Fountain dispenses with everyday assumptions about time, space and causality and tries to replace the prose of narrative cinema with a poetic language of rhyming images and visual metaphors.
I wish I could say that it succeeded. At his best — which is to say as a maker of gorgeous, haunting compositions (exquisitely rendered in Matthew Libatique's cinematography) — Aronofsky can achieve an eloquence that suggests a blend of Andrei Tarkovsky (speaking of rhymes) and comic books. But his commitment to conveying meaning and emotion through painstakingly constructed images also gives the movie a static, claustrophobic atmosphere. (When Queen Isabel notes that "these are dark times," she seems to be commenting mainly on the relentless chiaroscuro of the lighting design.)
The FountainDirected by: Darren AronofskyStarring: Hugh Jackman (Tomas/Tommy/Tom Creo), Rachel Weisz (Isabel/Izzi Creo) and Ellen Burstyn (Dr. Lillian Guzetti)Running time: 96 minutesTaiwan Release: Today
The director gives his main actors very little to do. Since their job is to embody a paradoxical romantic axiom — lovers may die, but love never does — they are trapped within a narrow range of emotions. Weisz's role is to glow and sigh, while Jackman registers various forms of anguish and desperation. The intensity of their feeling never breaks the surface, and the frame encases them like a vitrine. It's hard to sympathize with their hunger to overcome death, since neither one is credibly alive to begin with.
Entwined with their thousand-year melodrama is quite a bit of strenuous idea-mongering, having to do with the quest for eternal life and its consequences, and also with the tension between science and art. Tom Creo (the last name means "I believe" in Spanish) rages in the lab, bullying his subordinates and exasperating his supervisor (Ellen Burstyn) with his insistence on going after the secret of immortality rather than a mere cure for disease. Izzi, meanwhile, may have unlocked the secret herself, in a manuscript she has been working on (by hand, on old-fashioned folio pages) called The Fountain. "Finish it," she says to Tom.
She also tells him about Xibalba, the Mayan afterlife, a swirling vortex where all distinctions of present and past seem to vanish. Xibalba, which is also the name of a distant nebula in the movie, is connected to that tree, which is, according to the movie's dream logic, both a metaphor and an actual organism. (It is also, a bit misleadingly, the source of the film's title: fountain of youth, tree of life — same thing, really). It is where superstition and science meet, and where the truth of ancient religion is affirmed by the methods of modern science.