Fountain, The: Aronofsky’s Fable, Starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz

Darren Aronofskys “The Fountain” has engendered a great deal of discussion, shaped to large degree by its complicated production history. The original star Brad Pitt left the project, financing was fluid and unstable, and Aronofsky had to significantly scale back the size and reach of his original script; in the process, the budget was cut down from $70 million to $35.

Aronofsky has made only two previous features, but they have developed a sizable audience, not necessarily during their theatrical runs, but in the maturing and increasingly sophisticated DVD culture.

Now, that “The Fountain” has premiered, pretty much simultaneously, at festivals in Venice and Toronto, it offers an opportunity to think about the directors previous work and how it fits or opposes it. “Pi “(1998) created quite a sensation at Sundance, earning him the directing prize. “Requiem for a Dream” (2000), his lacerating, visceral adaptation of the Hubert Selby novel, played out of competition at Cannes and achieved strong notices and an even larger audience. Its multi-layerd narrative depicted without sentiment or romantic illusion the personal degradation and annihilation of addiction.

Though Aronofsky had only a small sample of work to explore stylistic and formal ideas, it seemed fairly clear he was a director willing to take risks with material, and draw on the particular formal exigencies of moviemaking, the immediacy, the emotional tension produced from image and sound, to make his audience uncomfortable.

The chance to witness or follow a young director such as Aronofsky in his formative stages remains thrilling because it allows a rare opportunity to chart a filmmakers growth. Because his movies arouse strong feelings, his admirers, his fans, feel protective toward him. Aronofsky assumes a great risk of alienating his small but loyal audience if he stops to push himself and tries to satisfy expectations rather than transcend them.

Though technically a studio release (Warner), “The Fountain” is basically an independent production shaped by the motivating factors of the directors first two movies, a freedom from what might be best described as the tyranny of conventional plot. A kind of triptych that shifts, not always fluidly, among three distinct time periods the 16th, 21st and 26th centuries. “The Fountain” is at the very least a provocation. At the premiere Toronto screening, actress Ellen Burstyn (who also appeared in “Requiem for a Dream”) admonished the crowd to let the movie do it to you.

“The Fountain” is a movie that asks the audience to surrender to it, but to what effect? The work is deeply flawed, and the first and third sections feel particularly truncated and difficult to follow. As a text, much of “The Fountain” is incoherent. The movie is bound to frustrate those who are drawn to clean plotlines or evocative stories. Like the directors first two movies, “The Fountain” is specifically designed to utilize the expressive capabilities of movies as a uniquely visual medium. In this respect, “The Fountain” is the work of a confident visual artist that in no way betrays his talent or ambition.

The storytelling takes some time to decipher. Aronofsky wrote the script from a story he developed with his collaborator, Ari Handel. Hugh Jackman (who can be seen now in Woody Allen’s “Scoop”) plays three characters. In the first section, he is intrepid Spanish explorer Tomas enlisted by Queen Isabel (Rachel Weisz) to locate the Tree of Life referenced in Genesis. Tomas is charged with verifying the source of the sap that is thought to endow immortality. In this segment, the scenes are sheathed in ink black darkness illuminated by bursts of fire, and Tomas resorts to his physical prowess to outmaneuver other rivals who are plotting against him.

The second and most satisfying part of “The Fountain” unfolds in the present, with Jackman playing a driven, obsessive scientist whose experimental procedures on monkeys is counterpointed against his crippling emotional realization that his beautiful wife Izzy (Weisz) is dying from an inoperable brain tumor.

Aronofsky is not the most spontaneous of directors, though there’s an electric sexual charge between his two actors, a dazzlingly conceived lovemaking scene inside a bathtub that gives the feverish visual imagery a jolt. Izzy is a talented writer who has composed, in long hand, the first eleven chapters of a book, “The Fountain,” that relates the story set in the 16th century.

The final plot movement features Jackman as a bald, emaciated man who travels through space in a bubble, an odyssey that has him searching for the origins of the Xibalba nebula. This is visually the most abstractly beautiful of the picture’s three sections. Aronofsky sharply links outer and inner consciousness, employing a Proustian recollection of memory, guilt and loss as the traveler, struggling to stay alive, experiences recovered memories of Izzy.

Aronofsky and his great cinematographer Matthew Libatique are clearly more alert and comfortable with images than words. “The Fountain” is a large, ambitious work, and impulsively it might be an easy film to denigrate. The best way to approach the film is as an immersive experience, and catch the awe and shock of that voluptuous, throbbing imagery. It is a film that asks you not to make sense of it but to circle and dance to its rhythms. Those seeking emotional identification with the characters will feel bruised and let down.

The movies commercial fate is going to be determined following its theatrical release in November. Aronofsky said that “The Fountain” marked a break from his two previous works, though all three of his movies are linked by very particularly emotional states, the need for community, the sense of being part of something larger.

“The Fountain” is a meditation on nature, identity, on our need to be solid and real. Though narratively flawed, it’s a visually sublime, often spellbinding work that is too opaque to probably achieve mainstream success.