The Tree of Life: On Darren Aronofsky’s "The Fountain", A Decade Later

Looking back on a film that exhibits both a personal artistic statement and a polaroid of an artist in becoming.
Jorge Mourinha
Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain (2006) is showing on MUBI from November 12 - December 12, 1017 in the United Kingdom.
“Finish it.”
The exhortation is an integral part of the texture of The Fountain as a work of art, but it also refers, obliquely, maybe unconsciously, to all the toil and trouble that surrounded its six-year path to the big screen and its controversial reception. Darren Aronofsky—a headstrong filmmaker if there ever was one—could have simply shelved the project indefinitely after his original lead, Brad Pitt, bailed out prior to the start of the production. But, like the words that Izzi says to Tom and that echo throughout the film’s three interconnected timelines, he didn’t. He had to “finish it.”
So Aronofsky did, regrouping, downsizing, rethinking a film that was inspired by both the out-there genre twisting of The Matrix and his own experiences with death. What emerged was a hyper-romantic threnody for a love lost traveling across time and space, from a Spanish conquistador looking for the Fountain of Eternal Youth to an interstellar traveller aiming to restore life to a dying tree. But the key lies in the contemporary story, following researcher Tom (Hugh Jackman) fighting to save his dying wife Izzi (Rachel Weisz) by looking for a cure for cancer and the book she is writing about the search for eternal youth. Past is a fiction left unfinished, present is a story that may be left unfinished, and what is future? A projection? A wish? An actual event? A “third chapter” (like the Portuguese release title, The Last Chapter, suggests) of the book Izzi is writing? Who cares for eternal youth, Aronofsky seems to be saying, when you can have eternal love and that is really all that matters?
It’s been a decade since The Fountain landed with a thud and it’s surprising how so many people seem to have forgotten it already. For my money, The Fountain ranks high up there as one of the great films maudits of the 2000s, alongside Steven Soderbergh’s superb Solaris, another genre threnody that was equally ill received.
It’s instructive to look at The Fountain within the general arc of Aronofsky’s career, which saw him rebound with The Wrestler (2008), Black Swan (2010) and Noah (2014) before this year’s mother! became one of the most talked-about and little-seen films of recent times. The genre-hopping, the attempt at going beyond the usual surface and offer fresh and alternative takes on tried-and-true tropes, the thoughtfulness belying each and every subversion: it can be argued Aronofsky is one of the very few true auteurs, in the classic sense of the expression, to work within the American filmmaking mainstream.
The Fountain
But here’s the thing: you’re supposed to push the envelope in the little leagues of the indie world where π (1998) and Requiem for a Dream (2000) became sensations in their own right, not once you make it to the major studios. The Fountain's stop-start production and non-linear, connect-the-dots approach may have predated Terrence Malick’s descent into swirling, sun-dappled existential impressionism, but how could a marketing department be expected to sell to the masses a film that dealt head-on with death and life and everything in between while stubbornly refusing to fit any one box?
The Fountain not only bombed at the box-office, it received some of the most scathing reviews I’ve ever read—as if Aronofsky’s ambition as a filmmaker to tell the greatest love story ever told in a way no one ever had was something to be looked down upon. Yet there’s much in The Fountain that would make attentive critics think twice about it. Like the film’s connections to the playfulness of the more esoteric and experimentalist New Wave filmmakers (and its Nouveau Roman cohorts like Alain Robbe-Grillet), from Chris Marker’s own La jetée to Alain Resnais’ Last Year in Marienbad or Je t’aime, je t’aime (a good friend also referred to hints of Rivette and Bresson in the austere treatment of the period story). And there’s no denying the 1970s vibe given by the far-out Latin mysticism and psychedelic visuals in the plot (whiffs of Herzog and Jodorowsky, yes, but less extreme than the German and more articulate than the Chilean). This was not a film of its time, or for its time.
Since The Fountain bombed, Aronofsky has not stopped being visionary and fearless—as proven by Black Swan’s debt to Italian gialli before they became last year’s fad, by his revisionist, grimy take on the Bible in Noah, by the Buñuelian surrealism of mother! (the only film the director has ever made that can be said to rival The Fountain in terms of negative reception). All of that—film scholarship, risk taking, not wanting to do what others had done before—were there in The Fountain, carried over from the previous work.
The Fountain is a film about love, yes, but it’s also about faith. Not just religious faith, mystical faith, but about faith in one another. “Finish it,” goes the exhortation, spoken by Rachel Weisz to Hugh Jackman in the three versions of their couple that populate past, present and future in Aronofsky’s film. Finish the quest for the Fountain of Eternal Youth queen Isabella of Spain sent her loyal Tomás in. Finish the research Tom Creo is doing, maybe not to save his darling Izzi but those who will come in the future. Take the dying tree back to where it came from, through the perils and wonders of the Mayan underworld, into dying stars. “Finish it,” only for the cycle to start again, if it ever truly ends—a dying star is only the beginning of a new one, after all.
Darren Aronofsky did finish The Fountain, on his own terms. That no one seemed to bother with it at the time is irrelevant to the fact that it exists, and that it’s a film that exhibits both a personal artistic statement and a polaroid of an artist in becoming. A decade later, the time has come to see it, again, as if for the first time. With the love and the faith that were cruelly denied it first time around.
“Finish it.”


Darren Aronofsky
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