The Fountain, Darren Aronokfsky’s 2006 science fiction masterpiece, is a true piece of cinematic art. It deals with weighty themes of love, death and the meaning of life, and it does so with a carefully considered artfulness, a self-consciously poetic sensibility that indicates a fussy, creative driving force. The long production history of the film is well-known, with a false start, a budget crisis and a comic book resulting from a long period of artistic gestation. That meant, in the final analysis for the creation of the film, that Aronofsky and his collaborators had lots of time to sit with the material and work on the finer points of its structure and execution. That sort of contemplation is normal for most works of art, but not generally for films, with their monstrous budgets and industrial production system designed for economic efficiency rather than artistic expression. Because of the pre-production problems, and Hollywood’s lack of faith in this kind of movie, Aronofsky was able to turn a good idea into a great one, and a small film into one bursting at the seams with artistic energy and creativity.
Any discussion of the film has to mention the glorious music, alternating between dark moments, heroic moments and moments of fragile beauty (just like the film). Longtime Aronofsky composer Clint Mansell collaborated with members of the Kronos Quartet and Mogwai to fashion the disciplined, almost minimalist music with sudden dramatic explosions of emotional sound. The film has quite a lot of music in it, using it, like other science fiction films such as Cloud Atlas, to knit sequences together and provide an emotional continuity. The music, in fact, is probably the first thing a viewer notices as one of the film’s artful tools. That was certainly the case with me. But the second aspect of the film that seizes the imagination is the use of colour.
Colour, in the cinema, is not used as often as one would think as a storytelling device. Which is odd, especially when you consider how much fuss cinema put into finding a way to shoot in colour for the first fifty years of its existence. Someone, somewhere, must find colour really important to the cinematic language, but those people don’t’ seem to be filmmakers. With some notable exceptions: for example, each sequence in Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor was given a colour motif, and some films, like Rodriguez’s Sin City, use colour selectively, to dramatic effect. A sensitive production designer might sneak in a few splashes of colour here and there to emphasize a dramatic point (such as Marie Schrader’s purple motif in Breaking Bad) but this sort of thing is so rare that it’s immediately noticeable.
Part of the received wisdom one learns in film school is that film was developing just fine as an artistic medium until sound and colour came along and ruined everything. “Serious” filmmakers for years in the mid-20th century avoided colour, and lately, with films like The Artist, there’s a resurgence of interest in the language of the silent cinema, and how much it’s still a part of a modern vocabulary. For the most part, it seemed like colour and sound were added to the mix a bit too quickly, before the possibilities of a limited medium were fully explored. As any artist will tell you, limitations are good things that inspire creativity. When you can make literally anything you can imagine appear on the screen, it’s amazing how rarely those images impress. A film like The Fountain, which had to make the most use of its limited budget and tools, and an unusual sense of how to utilize all aspects of the medium, is a great demonstration of that principle.
The Fountain tells the story of two lovers, bound together through eternity, and the fine line between love and obsession. The two main characters, their names always some variation of “Tom” and “Elizabeth” throughout the various time periods, are anchored in a “present day” narrative in which “Izzy” is dying of cancer and “Tommy” is a scientist close to a breakthrough on a cure, derived from the bark of a rare tree. Tommy, played in all his manifestations by Hugh Jackman, like many modern people, views death as an illness to be cured, and uses the vernacular of battle, as so many (I’ll say too many) people do when faced with cancer. “I’m going to beat it!” “I’m going to fight!” Tommy is that sort of guy, and in an ordinary film, everyone would go along with him on that and play out the North American narrative of “illness as war”. But this is a better film than that, and one that gives voice to another, more sensible attitude, which is to embrace death as a part of life and enjoy the time they have. Izzy herself, played with wonderful fetching intelligence and heart by Rachel Weisz, has this attitude. One memory that plays out over and over is her inviting Tommy, near the end of her life, to go play in the freshly fallen snow, but Tommy refusing, saying that he’s too busy and close to a breakthrough. Like a typical western man, he’s ignoring the present to try and control the future, an effort that, the film itself points out, is hopeless and pointless from the start. Izzy eventually dies, moments after Tommy discovers the cure for her cancer and the secret to eternal life, hidden in the bark of that sacred tree. Inspired by her vision of a far-away star, Xibalba, Tommy (now called “Tom”) has kept himself alive for a thousand years by feeding from the tree and in a super-advanced spacecraft, essentially a giant bubble, he is traveling to the star, taking the tree with him, in the hopes that in doing so, Izzy’s life will be restored. Centuries later, Tommy still is unable to let go.
The historical narrative also fits, with Izzy becoming “Queen Isabella” of Spain and Tommy becoming “Tomas”, the conquistador in the new world who discovers the tree of life, guarded by Mayan warriors. This leads him to a confrontation in which he himself merges with the tree, simultaneously dying and bringing forth eternal life. “Together,” the film’s oft-repeated phrase goes, “We will live forever.”
It’s heavy stuff, and despite Rachel Weisz’s warmth and humanity providing the film with some much-needed humour and playfulness, it does all come across as being rather serious and self-important. That fits, it seems to me, because these are not “light” issues and besides: there’s room here for some wonderful and moving emotional filmmaking.
Colour is what unites all the storylines. From the start, Aronofsky chooses a selective palette, emphasizing yellow, gold and black. In the literal sense, these are colours associated with Spanish nobility, and forms a nice and relatively historically accurate colour scheme for the 16th century sequences. The Spanish were looking for gold in the new world, after all, gold that stuck out from a dark background. That yellow is first associated with Isabella, the Queen of Spain to whom “Tomas” is slavishly devoted. Resplendent on her throne, in her royal garb, she is more of a symbol than a person (royalty always is), but Tomas devotedly goes in search of the tree of life in her honour.
Yellows and Golds are associated with Weisz’s character throughout the story, whether it be the dress she’s wearing, or the light around her. In fact, her character is often shrouded with a yellow-golden fill light. Or, when Tommy (in the present day sequences) sees Izzy in bed, she is framed by golden vases. This metaphor continues even with scenes that aren’t necessarily related to the love story, like how Tommy’s lab is filled with yellow light, the computers all have yellow-themed desktop screens, and even the monkeys with which he is experimenting are filled with golden-yellow hues. In the 16th century sequences, yellow-golden candles and fires populate the Inquisitor’s chambers. (There is a subplot of religious intolerance in the 16th century playing a narrative antagonist to Tomas the Conquistador, possibly the only truly unnecessary portion of the film.)
But there is more to it than just colour. Aronofsky blends movement with the image, like a true cinematic storyteller. Here, the movement is predominantly in the “Z-axis”, moving towards or moving away from objects. And those objects are invariably in the form of a yellow/golden star. This metaphor reaches its apex in the film’s spectacular conclusion, in which Tom the astronaut approaches the star Xiblalba, a metaphor for Izzy and everything in the world he can’t leave behind. But it always remains beyond Tommy’s grasp. There’s even a scientific connection, as when colour shifts to the yellow-gold range of the spectrum in the Doppler effect, this indicates two objects growing further apart, not coming together as one would expect. This isn’t really a buried or subtle pattern: this isn’t a particularly subtle film, although it is graceful and intelligent in its obviousness.
The key metaphor of the film is right there in that camera movement motif reaching, yearning for a goal always slightly out of reach, and ultimately learning the folly of spending one’s life grasping at something elusive rather than enjoying what you have. That’s the ultimate message of The Fountain, as I see it: love, religion, scientific knowledge and ultimately the magic and majesty of interstellar travel are no more important than going for a walk in the snow. Or, as Warren Zevon said before his untimely death, “Enjoy every sandwich.” A small, profound conclusion to a film that scales epic heights.