Sunday, July 1, 2007

The Fountain / **** (2006)

The director who undertakes ventures that are about more than conventional entertainment value is the director who goes on to make a movie like “The Fountain,” in which message and concept are bound by touches of experiment in a way that lends great potential to the way a story can move, excite and intrigue us on more than just a surface level. The very existence of the movie is a refreshing notion, a manner made all the more exhilarating by the sheer gustiness of its thrust, and its ability to turn its own nose up at the idea of attracting a crowd interested only in traditional thrills. But the Hollywood machine often forgets that it inherits its most faithful of followers not from the mainstream, but rather from the trenches in which many a unique cinematic endeavor reside. It is this prospect, alas, that encourages many of the most gifted and offbeat filmmakers to simply abandon the more challenging road and move onto the path more glamorous. What happened to the era of the movies where we went to think, to learn, and to experience? And for that matter, what happened to the times in which we embraced the eccentrics for what they were, and not for how much box office potential their movies had? There are those of course who find great success in making that leap, but for most the grass is seldom greener on the other side of the fence.

A sad state of the movie world indeed, but not one that is entirely bleak either. For every Tim Burton that leaps from the cliff and finds no cushion beneath his feet, there is a Darren Aronofsky who seems perfectly content staying in the backwoods, making movies in the process that are not only about people, but also about feelings, about humanity and synergy, and about the harsh realities they attempt to survive in. His latest effort follows 2000’s “Requiem for a Dream,” the stark and heart-breaking chronicle of four people who allow themselves to be destroyed from the inside by measures that most would see as relatively preventable. In both movies, characters marinate in a cesspit of melancholy and despair, many times teetering along the edge of downright obsession. The push comes in different forms; for those in “Requiem” it emerges as drug dependency, for the hero in “The Fountain” it comes out as a pursuit of something too far out of reach to seem tangible, yet too desired to be abandoned.

The difference between it and “The Fountain” lies entirely in technique. This movie is non-linear, sometimes intensely abstract; its three arcs overlap one another, only one of them being grounded (the other two either exist as echoes of the former, or merely abandoned outlines of it for the sake of provoking dialogue on how different time periods and realities can shape universal goals). In the primary narrative, Hugh Jackman plays Dr. Tom Creo, a brilliant mind of medicine who spends night and day in dimly-lit laboratories searching for answers – or rather, a result – in the most important and time-sensitive project of his life: finding the cure to his wife’s bout with terminal brain cancer. She (played her with great subtlety by Rachel Weisz) is a woman at peace with her fate, a soul cherishing the time she has left; he, on the flip side, is an obsessed and fool-hearted man, so driven by his refusal to deal with fate that his own obsession feels almost terminal in itself. His drive is misguided, his spirit is drained, and his efforts are pointless. Or are they? To wonder is to acknowledge that this is a doctor who obviously lives in an alternate reality, one where the rules remain the same but guidelines are bendable, perhaps even breakable. Who really is to say that his efforts cannot lead to a breakthrough? Is it really all that hopeless? The anchored answers in our minds have a tendency to be challenged because we want them to, perhaps because we are optimists who secretly hope that solutions to the biggest problems in life are not unattainable, just temporarily out of reach.

The Fountain of Youth is a relic that few in the movie-making business seem eager to pursue as a plot device – with the introduction of it comes incessant moral and spiritual dilemmas, a fact that is demonstrated to full force in this utterly rich and impassioned gem of a film. Most directors would dilute the questions it raises by making it trivial or even background; here, Aronofsky allows the subtext of it to absorb his stories and their characters. It is saturated with heart and driven by mind, complex and thought-provoking in the way it allows threads of argument and reason to weave themselves through the elaborate psyches that populate the celluloid. Its effect is further enriched by a visual style that is intricate and zealous and yet not overly glossy; never do you suspect that it exists just for the sake of attracting those who are into movies just for special effects or set design. The script does not base all the questions it raises on answers either, a factor that is encouraging as a viewer (finally, at long last, a moviemaker trusts us to make our own decisions about a theme being presented).

There might have been more of an incentive to make the three overlapping stories more direct and to-the-point in a situation where the screenplay chose to make an exact conclusion about the material, but the general ambiguity of it adds to the resonance. As viewers we are quick to draw on the drama and heartbreak that infests the lives of these two soul-bound lovers, but from the analytical side of things the attempt to decipher the other two semi-narratives represents a challenge too delicious to ignore. Jackman and Weisz are right on target as man and wife but even more intriguing as queen and warrior, two souls who cross paths – but are never meant to be connected – in 15th century Spain. Queen Isabel faces certain death at the hands of sworn enemies, but the lustful and dedicated eyes of Tomas, her trusted guard, refuse to let that be, and the strong man makes a perilous journey into the unknown for the answer to her (and maybe his) immortality. Perhaps even greater a contrast to that is the third story, a vignette that is haunting in its quietness as we watch Jackman, now a monk of sorts, attempting to save the spirit of a dying tree by taking it to a nebula for rejuvenation.

The perplexity of it all is relentless. Are Jackman and Weiss two souls repeating history across time, reincarnated for the sake of learning from the past? Are the stories blending into one another because only one is happening and the other two are illusions, or even figments in alternate realities?  If finding the direct links proves to be too great a stretch, it is perhaps safer to look at the triangular story arc from a more mechanical approach. Here we have similar ideas, similar paths and similar fates playing out on three canvases each fueled by different stages of the creative process: the vague and uncertain (Tom and his Tree), the adventurous and stark (Tomas and his Queen), and the fully realized (Tom and his dying wife). If one is to be left with anything for certain at the end of “The Fountain,” it is the unmatched realization that its creator is fully in love with not just the result of his art, but also the very happening of it. Here we have a man who has a lot to say and only a couple hours to say it, and instead of filling our heads with long and exhausting diatribes in which exact positions are taken, he creates a multi-faceted universe that is quiet and subtle enough with its points to warrant long and involved discussions.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Drama/Romance (US); 2006; Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of violent action, some sensuality and language; Running Time: 96 Minutes

Hugh Jackman: Tomas/Tommy/Dr. Tom Creo
Rachel Weisz: Queen Isabel/Izzi Creo
Ellen Burstyn: Dr. Lillian Guzetti
Mark Margolis: Father Avila
Stephen McHattie: Grand Inquisitor Silecio

Produced by Arnon Milchan, Iain Smith and Nick Wechsler; Directed and written by Darren Aronofsky; based on the story by Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel 

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