There Is a Fountain, by Esther O’Reilly

15 Apr

Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain is a mess of mythical proportions, literally and figuratively. A jumbled, uneven blend of sci-fi, historical fantasy, and romance, it was commercially ignored and critically snubbed upon its release in 2006. But since then, it’s gained a cult following. Stylistically, it’s a visual tone poem in the mold of Stanley Kubrick or Terrence Malick, impressively created with mostly practical effects. Like The Tree of Life, it aspires to be a story on a universal scale that remains rooted in the intimately particular sorrows of everyday human existence. This is encapsulated in one of the film’s earliest images, when we are introduced to a futuristic astronaut named Tom. The floating biosphere he inhabits, nearly taken up by an immense tree, seems like it couldn’t be more unmoored from reality. But when he turns, a vision comes to him: a young woman with close-cropped hair, lying asleep on a hospital bed.

The story is spun out non-linearly along three parallel timelines: the era of the Spanish conquistadors, the present day, and the deep future. Binding all three strands together is the question Nicodemus put to Christ: “What must I do to gain eternal life?” If the film loses itself on its way to the answer, and if that answer fails to satisfy the Christian viewer, it still seems weirdly fitting that I should have encountered it this week, and that I should find myself still thinking about it as Good Friday draws to a close.

In the past, “Tomasz” is a Ponce de Leon-like figure embarking on a quest for the Tree of Life. In the present, “Tommy” is a medical researcher seeking death’s ultimate cure for the sake of his cancer-stricken wife, Izzy (Rachel Weisz). Izzy, we learn, is fascinated by Mayan mythology and writing the conquistador’s story as a novel. In the future, “Tom” the astronaut is the Last Man, setting his course for a dying star. All three, naturally, are the same man (played by a 110% committed Hugh Jackman), and all three stories are shot through with parallel visual symbolism. The question of exactly which ones are “real” has stirred much debate. I will assume what I think is the most plausible interpretation, namely that Tomasz is pure fiction, but present Tommy succeeds in discovering the secret and uses it to live on for hundreds of years, actually becoming future Tom.

The film’s main flaw is that it fails to keep the viewer equally invested in all three stories. Take away the visual continuity from the conquistador passages, and they’re merely a tedious slog. (As it is, they’re still a tedious slog, but the symbolism gives them a faint pretense of relevance.) Leaping forward, Tom’s passages move and intrigue in fits and starts. Yet by the time his climax arrives in an Exploding Nebula of New Age-iness, the viewer isn’t sure whether to laugh or cry, or both.

The true heart of the piece is Tommy and Izzy’s story, and it is here that The Fountain consistently commands our emotional investment. Despite a sometimes clumsy script, it offers up moments that linger insistently and hauntingly in the mind, largely on the strength of Jackman’s fearless performance. The moment when he joins Izzy to star-gaze in the snow, only to look down and realize she’s barefoot. The moment when he gently runs an already warm sponge over her skin, and she pleads with him to heat it. The moment when he loses his wedding ring, and all the moments he is reminded that it is lost. (At his lowest ebb, he uses her last gift of a fountain pen to gouge a circle around the ring finger, as tears of pain and grief flow mingled down.)

Tommy is a dark figure, albeit a deeply humanized one. He conducts questionably ethical experiments on monkeys in pursuit of a treatment that will shrink the tumor in Izzy’s brain. He is so consumed by his work that he can even be short with his beloved when she asks him to spend time with her that could be spent in the lab. (One repeated motif is a flashback to a night when she asked him to come walk with her in the first snow, and he refused.) She knows she is “close,” but he assures her, “We have time. We still have time.” Meanwhile, she completes all but the last chapter of her novel, still missing the ending, and turns it over to him with instructions to “finish it.”

Predictably, he receives news of a breakthrough at the very moment she slips away from cardiac arrest. The frantic rage with which he tries to revive her is heartbreaking and terrifying in equal measure. But it is all for naught.

The central theme, of course, is the necessity of releasing one’s hold on this life to embrace the “life” that can come only through death. As friends stand over Izzy’s grave, his superior (Ellen Burstyn) murmurs a eulogy about the grace with which she accepted her fate. Tommy can barely contain his anger and walks away. “Death is a disease,” he says, “just like any other, and there’s a cure. A cure. And I will find it.”

The attraction of Izzy’s gentle voyage into that good night can be tempting even for Christians. After all, we believe that there can be dignity in death and that death is the doorway to eternal life. And yet, we must also acknowledge the nagging truth in what is intended to be an expression of hubris on Tommy’s part. We know death all too well now, but it was not always so. It is a disease, the disease with which all creation groans. And while in one sense we are called to “accept it,” there’s a reason why we mourn it. Tommy’s manic obsession with bodily immortality is a strawman, an exaggeration of the healthy fear of death it is altogether right to retain.

By contrast with the bodily and spiritual resurrection we anticipate as Christians, the sort of “life” offered in the pagan mysticism Izzy clings to is cold comfort indeed. According to this framework, we ourselves, and not merely our earthly bodies, will return literally to dust. We will “live on” only in the sense that we are absorbed back into the universe, to become the stuff of earth and stars. In particular, Izzy recounts the legend of the Mayan “First Father,” whose death by tree growth became an act of new creation. As she and Tommy star-gaze, she points out a (fictitious) star called “Xibalba,” after the Mayans’ underworld. It’s dying and will soon explode “giving birth to new stars.”

In the future, the tree Tom tends in the biosphere is understood somehow to contain his wife’s essence, and he believes it will be “reborn” when they reach Xibalba (how he perfectly timed it so they will arrive just as it explodes, and why he expects this to grant immortality, don’t ask). But just as he was too late in the present, he is too late here to keep the tree from dying naturally. He receives one last visit from Izzy’s ghost as he weeps over it. As she touches him and repeats her injunction, “Finish it,” he flashes back to her words before she died that she was “not afraid anymore.” “I’m going to die!” he repeats joyously. “I’m going to die!” He relives the refusal to join her on her walk one last time, except now he leaves his assistants behind and chases after her. Now, at long last, he can “finish it” in both senses. He finishes Tomasz’s story by assigning him the same fate as the First Father upon drinking sap from the Tree of Life. He finishes his own story by pushing out to meet the nebula halfway, disappearing in a shower of sparks which cause the tree to blossom as they fall. He seems to see her hand outstretched to him, holding the seed of a tree.

The very last moment of the film then (wisely) looks back one last time to spend a few minutes with present Tommy at Izzy’s grave, as he plants what looks like the same seed in the ground. We hear his whispered voiceover to a sleeping Izzy from earlier in the film: “Everything’s all right.” But is it? Is it really?

In the end, Christ promises what Buddha will not: a union not with “the universe,” but with a person, the Person of God himself. He promises that we will not lose ourselves, but that we will be more fully ourselves than ever before. He promises a soul united with a new body that will never return to dust. This is the victory that swallows up death. This is the spring of living water welling up to eternal life. This is the fountain that never runs dry.

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