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November 22-28, 2006

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'The Fountain'

Photograph by Takashi Seida
Haven't we met before? Rachel Weisz and Hugh Jackman meet cute three times in the eon-spanning love story 'The Fountain.'

Tree Huggers

Darren Aronofsky searches for the Tree of Life, but 'The Fountain' spouts only nonsense

By Richard von Busack

THE THOUGHT of hanging concentrates a man's mind, said Dr. Johnson. Let's hear it for delaying the inevitable with less-concentrated thought. Trivial distractions can make life as much worth living as calm, grateful acceptance of our eventual deaths.

I know that this is the Western fallacy, that we can put death off and that we foolishly dread our mortality instead of celebrating it. Yay! I'm going to die! The calm Buddhist, the fervent Christian and the devout Mayan go to their ends with a smile. But really: What's in it for the rest of us? And what's up with certain directors trying to hustle us off to the hospice before our time?

The Fountain is Darren Aronofsky's visionary drama about 1,000 years of love between Rachel Weisz and Hugh Jackman, in three (or perhaps two) roles. In the past, Tomas (Jackman), a leather-jerkined conquistador, finds himself cornered by a Mayan death-priest adorned with necklaces of skulls. This culture clash is part of the conquistador Tomas' journey to find the Tree of Life for Queen Isabel (Weisz) in its protective jungles in New Spain.

In the far future, Tom (Hugh again) is a bald-headed Zen spaceman in a glass bubble, escorting the dying trunk of the Tree of Life into a star about to go supernova. To pass the time on this epic journey, the Future Primitive performs tai chi and adorns himself with self-inflicted tattoos, ignoring the murmuring voice of the tree (or perhaps the films' producers) saying, "Finish it."

In the present, Tommy (you guessed it) is a scientist whose wife, Izzi (Weisz), is expiring prettily of a brain tumor while writing an allegorical novel in a calligraphic hand. Seeing the manuscript, with no erasures or second thoughts, one can't imagine it would be any good. Older than the Tree of Life is the ancient law that easy writing makes hard reading.

The Fountain's seemingly indescribably complex scenario turns out to be fairly explainable and even sort of feather-headed. As a film, it appears to be a series of dreamlike images that Aronofsky tried to link with a story. The theme isn't crazier than the Michael Powellish Albert Levin movie Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951); even hardheaded movie watchers might want to see the fantasy of a love that lasts an eon.

But the characterization makes the images hard to take. Turning the two lovers into Everycouple, Aronofsky makes them into No Couple. "My conquistador," says Izzi, smiling, as she lies dying in her hospital bed, bemused by her doctor husband's frantic urge to find a cure for her disease. Considering that she ought to be fighting for her life—as real-life tumor patients must do—Izzi's embrace of the dying of the light is part of a childish personality.

And Izzi's story takes up so much of the film. In The Constant Gardener, Weisz also plays the flashback-woman of a perfect lost love, gone before we really knew her; but here she functions as a childish angel. The one love scene, in a bubble bath, is like watching Mr. and Mrs. Shamu cavort at Marine World. Weisz evinces more adultness than Audrey Tautou; but it looks as if Weisz's quick demolition of Hugh Grant's ego in About A Boy was the exception that proves the rule. Face glowing in overexposed light, Weisz has to play St. Inspiration in a church window.

The mystery of the connecting stories will be enough to put some watchers in a reverent mood. Locally, plenty of devotees pursue "spiritualism" of the kind Aronofsky has crafted here, blending Mayan lore with Buddhist meditation into a New Age smoothie.

Such customers will accept the Transfigured Spaceman floating in full lotus position in a Mayan pyramid as something more than just a gross mixed metaphor. They'll see the sacred intentions underneath the Lugosi-movie dialogue: "How amazing it is that the Mayans chose a dying star to represent their underworld." The Fountain gives us a few preservable images: the Moorish El Cid décor of Isabel's throne room, for example, and the glimpsed terror of the Spanish Inquisition's chamber, a "hell of upside-down sinners," to quote a choice line from Big Trouble in Little China.

In closer shots, the space bubble looks like a depressing snow globe ("Souvenir of Dead Tree National Park"). In longer shots, the small circlet of the craft comes across a little eerier: deep space explored by the ultimate lost contact lens. And Aronofsky produces a novel instance of horror: an image of fast-forwarded vegetation claiming a human body.

Unlike the glass bauble adrift in the universe, this idea suggests actual human fate. Feeding the grass, pushing up the daisies, is what we must do someday. (Only the privileged can afford it, though. The rest of just have a date with the flash-fryer at the Uranus Society instead of that once-promised hummock of grass and the noble stone: "Here lies RvB, 1958-2209; Mankind's Greatest and Most Selfless Benefactor.")

Letting go is inevitable, but that's where our death-defying cinema acts as a drug of immortality. Rather than a movie that urges accepting the wisdom that "Death is the road to awe," I would prefer a cinema of life.

Movie Times The Fountain (PG-13; 96 min.), directed by Darren Aronofsky, written by Aronofsky and Ari Handel, photographed by Matthew Libatique and starring Rachel Weisz and Hugh Jackman, opens Nov. 22.

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