Now that you all know why I harbor such a ridiculously intense crush on Hugh Jackman, it’s time for the Hugh-a-Palooza to continue!
While Hugh has starred in some wonderful films over the years, today I want to focus on one of my favorites: The Fountain, directed by Darren Aronofsky and co-starring Rachel Weisz. It’s one of those movies that seems to defy genre: one-part romance, one-part science fiction, one-part fantasy.
Aronofsky’s experimental style, as well as the non-linear storyline, makes it a bit odd and off-beat. It’s little wonder that the movie elicits divided reactions from fans and critics alike. It was allegedly booed by critics during its initial screening at the Venice Film Festival; fan reactions usually range from “Love It!” to “Hate It!”, with a fair number of people scratching their heads and saying, “Huh?”
The movie encompasses three storylines, all of which involve men battling the inevitability of death to save the women that they love. The core storyline takes place in the present-day, where Tommy Creo (Jackman) is a scientist struggling to find a cure for cancer. His motivations are as much personal as they are altruistic — his wife, Izzi, is fighting brain cancer. As he works to find a way to cure her disease and to keep her alive, she is learning to accept death, turning to an ancient Mayan myth about death and rebirth.
Izzi uses writing as a vehicle for healing and acceptance, weaving a fictional tale about Queen Isabella of Spain’s quest for the mythical Tree of Life, found in “the jungles of New Spain.” This is the second strand of the film, where Queen Isabella (also played by Weisz) commands her loyal conquistador, Tomas, to journey to South America, find the tree, and bring back its secrets.
The third strand of the film takes place in the future, with Tom Creo as a space traveler taking the Tree of Life to Xibalba, the dying nebula that the ancient Mayans believed to be their underworld. Tom measures the years of his life in tattoos that run up and down his arms like tree rings, and as he sails through space to the place where he and the tree will be reborn, he is haunted by moments from the past: Izzi commanding him to finish her book, Isabella charging him with the task of finding the tree, Izzi asking him to take a break from his work to walk through the first snowfall with her.
There are different interpretations of this third strand. Did Tommy invent a way to stop death and aging? Or are the solitary adventures of Tom the Space Traveler present-day Tommy’s way of ending Izzi’s book? Although I prefer the latter perspective, the film is told in a way that allows for multiple readings.
This is a movie that is incredibly rich with symbols and themes, from the use of trees and circles (Tommy’s wedding ring, Tom’s bubble-like spaceship, and other imagery), to the use of color. In all 3 storylines, Tommy is always dressed in black, save for the final scene of the film, when he is wearing silver. Izzi, on the other hand, is almost always in white, with the exception of the Spain storyline, where she is clad in a gown of rich bronze and gold, embroidered with the recurring tree motif.
When it comes to themes, the battle between life and death, and the tension between acceptance of nature and control over nature, reign supreme. As a scientist, Tommy represents the urge to control life: he wants to cure cancer, to stop aging, to bring an end to death and suffering. Historically, this is a characteristic associated with masculinity, the old Cartesian dualism where mind exerts control over body, where man can shape and harness nature according to his will.
Izzi gives us the opposite side of the coin: the desire to embrace nature, to see death as just another part of the human journey. Throughout the film, she utters a single refrain: “Death is the road to awe.” While Tommy is single-mindedly focused on developing a drug to cure her brain cancer, Izzi wants him to walk in the snow and watch the stars. Tommy tells her, in a voice filled with anguish, that he wants her to stay with him, she reminds him that she will always be with him… but what is left unspoken is that her presence may not always be a physical one.
Above all, it is Hugh’s performance that draws me back to this movie time and again. While he exhibits all sorts of raw masculinity and berserker rage as Wolverine, his turn in The Fountain encompasses the greatest emotional range that I’ve ever seen him exhibit. In the present-day, he is a man standing on the brink of a breakdown, fighting to maintain control over his anger and his sadness.
With Izzi, he is tender and warm, and yet he can’t cry in front of her — that expression of grief is something that he can only do in solitude. As Tomas the Conquistador, he is intense and driven in his desire to protect his queen and carry out her wishes. As Tom the Space Traveler, he is somber and meditative, yet when Izzi/Isabella reappear and demand that he “finish it,” his grief is palpable. “I don’t know how it ends,” he keeps saying, and we can all feel his heartbreak.
The Fountain isn’t a perfect movie. At times it seems convoluted, and yet it is one of my favorites of all time. It is a movie that makes me think, one that makes me feel, and that is a rare thing in today’s world of cinema.
It’s also visually striking, and Clint Mansell’s soundtrack is so exquisite and evocative that I often put it on repeat and play it for hours on end. If you’ve got an open mind, and the desire to submerge yourself into a strange but beautiful world for an hour and a half, I encourage you to check out this movie.
Has anyone else seen The Fountain? Did you love it or hate it?