Saturday, January 27, 2007

Review - The Fountain

There are some films which are so ambitious, imaginative and heartfelt, it seems almost cruel to label them a failure, but Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain is one of these pictures. In an era when so many films offer nothing new, having the life market-tested out of them before they hit the cinema screens, one wants to applaud a picture which takes the kind of risks that this bewildering film does so frequently, but The Fountain is an absolute mess. It’s an incoherent and po-faced muddle which outstays its welcome long before the laughable finale - even with a 96-minute running time. At a number of points in The Fountain the words “finish it” are repeated, and every time I heard this good advice I hoped somebody was about to put this seriously misguided film out of its misery.

The Fountain stars Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz in a story which spans 1,000 years, and in each of them Jackman plays a variation on the same character, striving to save the woman he loves. In 16th century Spain, Queen Isabel (Weisz) has been targeted by The Grand Inquisitor for her perceived heresy in attempting to find the secret of eternal youth. She summons Tomas (Jackman), her most trusted conquistador, and sends him on a quest for the Tree of Life which has apparently been hidden away in a lost Mayan pyramid. When he returns, she tells him, they will live together as immortals.

Weisz is very far from immortal in the second strand of The Fountain’s narrative. This time the setting is the present day United States, and Weisz’s Izzi is suffering from a brain tumour which is causing her to die in a very slow and oddly beatific fashion. But her husband Tommy (Jackman) hasn’t given up hope yet, and he spends hours in his lab trying to find a way to save her. “Death is a disease like any other, and I will find the cure” he states, but his obsession with this medical breakthrough means he is neglecting his wife when she needs him most. This section of the story is linked to the first through a book Izzi is writing - named, funnily enough, The Fountain - which tells the story of the Spanish search for the Tree of Life; and the climax of her book, if she lives long enough to write it, will have something to do with Xibalba.

What is Xibalba? Apparently it’s a nebula in the solar system which the Mayan people believed was their afterworld, the place souls go to be reborn, and this is the tangential connection to The Fountain’s third narrative thread. Now the film takes place in the 26th century, and a shaven-headed Jackman is positioned in a giant floating bubble which is gradually ascending through space towards Xibalba. For company, he has that troublesome tree growing in his bubble, and he is frequently visited by the ghost of Izzi. Occasionally he picks off pieces of the tree’s bark for food, and tattoos himself to mark the passage of time. What all this means is anyone’s guess.

The Fountain has been a labour of love for Aronofsky, who was originally set to make the film some four years ago with Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and a much bigger budget, but quite what he’s trying to say here is a mystery. Clearly the director has some deeply profound thoughts on his mind - The Fountain is awash in its own seriousness - but amidst all the surreal goings-on he never finds a way to express those ideas in an effective manner; and if he did, then they went right over my head. This isn’t necessarily disastrous for the film - I have enjoyed many films in the past without being able to grasp their meaning - but The Fountain fails in other departments as well. What matters with this film is not that it left me bemused, but that it left me bored.

For a film so concerned with eternal life, The Fountain is sorely lacking in any sense of life itself. Aronofsky directs in an oddly structured fashion, pushing the picture along on rigid lines with his continual vertical pans and slow zooms; and this relentless formalism is stifling. The same director’s Requiem for a Dream plunged right into the emotionally wrought waters of Hubert Selby Jr’s story, but here that kind of passion is notable by its absence. The pacing is poor, with many scenes being repeated over and over again, and along with the cutting together of three stories it makes the film feel rather baggy. The continual hopping from one time period to another has a detrimental effect on character development too, with neither of the leads ever fleshing out their various incarnations.

In fairness, both Jackman and Weisz give fine performances, but they’re acting in a void. Despite Jackman bringing intensity and gravity to his role, we never really get to know who he is - instead of a fully-formed character, Jackman plays Man with Beard, Man without Beard and Man in Bubble; that’s about as much depth as he is afforded. Weisz has also been forsaken in the characterisation department; she’s here more as an object of beauty than anything else, with Aronofsky bathing his fiancĂ©e in an angelic light and shooting her as lovingly as possible. The two actors can’t generate much heat in their scenes together though, and the failure of this central relationship pretty much kills the movie.

Aronofsky continues to tell three stories until the movie finally inches into its climactic act, and then he disastrously attempts to draw everything together with a final section in which the separate time periods appear to bleed into one another. It becomes quite clear, as we watch one anti-climax follow another, that the director has no idea how to end this picture, and things grow increasingly ridiculous as the movie hurtles towards the abyss. The natural reaction would be to laugh, but The Fountain takes itself so seriously - not a hint of humour is ever allowed to pierce its shield of self-importance - and instead this final onslaught of nonsense is simply depressing.

There are some lovely individual aspects to The Fountain, which makes its overall failure all the more disappointing. The visual effects shots - apparently created without recourse to CGI - are often brilliant, and Clint Mansell’s score is very good indeed, but the pretty imagery and music doesn’t seem to be underpinned by any tangible meaning, which negates its effect. One must admire Darren Aronofsky’s ambition and single-mindedness in making this picture, but he has lost his way badly with this self-indulgent folly, and it comes as an enormous letdown after the intelligent Pi and the lacerating Requiem for a Dream. The Fountain seems to tell us that life is short, and we should make the most of it while we can - what a shame this hugely talented filmmaker has spent six years creating such a turgid waste of time.