The Fountain
by Michelle Erica Green

Don't let anyone scare you off from The Fountain by convincing you that it's science fiction or fantasy. The film incorporates elements of both, yet is much more than either. I didn't see it in the theater because I was told that it was hard to follow the jumps in time -- one storyline takes place in Inquisition-era Spain, another in the present day, and a third, apparently, many thousands of years in the future -- so when I finally watched it on DVD, I expected to have greater admiration for the superb cast (Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, Ellen Burstyn) and the visual effects than the drama itself.

I couldn't have been more wrong. The Fountain is one of the most haunting films I have ever seen. It doesn't surprise me that it wasn't a commercial hit in the US because it has much more the feel of a foreign film, in particular of movies by Hector Babenco and Guillermo del Toro, where realism and fantastical sequences set in the imagination weave together. As in Pan's Labyrinth, the viewer is never quite sure whether the fantasy elements are meant to be real or figments of a character's imagination, and as in Kiss of the Spider Woman, what seems at first to be one character's dream sequence ultimately belongs to another. Yet while both of those films have political elements, depicting different forms of escapism used by oppressed characters at specific historical moments, The Fountain is more concerned with the eternal human condition. It's a film about grief, death and the difficulty of moving forward during and after a crushing loss. I'm not sure I've ever seen a sadder movie.

At its core, the plot is a romance. Dr. Tom Creo (Jackman) is a cutting-edge medical researcher; his wife Izzi (Weisz), a writer, is dying of a brain tumor. While Tom experiments on monkeys, using rare tree resin from Central America to try to shrink tumors, Izzi works on a novel about a conquistador trying to rescue his beloved Queen from the Inquisition by finding the legendary Mayan paradise Xibalba, where the Tree of Life provides rebirth and eternal salvation. Izzi has studied both myths of the underworld and astronomy as studied by the Mayans, which suggest that Xibalba is not an earthly location but a dying star wrapped in a planetary nebula. She explains to Tom that the star will eventually explode and be reborn, just as the Mayan Tree of Life is reborn from the body of a warrior who gives his life to nourish it and who is reborn within it. In his own mind, Tom imagines traveling with Izzi -- also reborn as a tree -- to the dying star so that they can live forever.

Maybe I'm wrong and the galactic trip in a magic bubble to the star is supposed to be literal, but it's hard to find evidence for that in the film, which unfolds in a non-linear and dreamlike manner that makes it almost essential to watch the movie twice. The opening images, which involve both the conquistador's quest and the trip through the cosmos, seem confusing and somewhat random until Tom and Izzi's story begins to unfold in the present day. There, as he works, Tom keeps reliving certain moments over and over -- the day he refused to take a walk in the snow with his dying wife because he was too busy trying to cure her, the loss of his wedding ring while scrubbing for surgery, the way the hairs rise on the back of Izzi's neck when he kisses her there. Sometimes he looks like Tommy Creo; sometimes he looks like the conquistador of Izzi's novel; sometimes he looks like the bald futuristic version of himself. Meanwhile Izzi sometimes looks like a fantasia of Queen Isabella, who wears a cloak embroidered with tree branches, and when she's with the futuristic Tom, she has become a tree whose cilia rise in response to Tom's touch the way the hairs on the back of Izzi's neck do when she's a woman.

Very early on in the film, we hear Tom begin to repeat what will become his mantra: "Please leave me alone. I don't know how it ends. Okay, I trust you -- show me." These words refer to his own story, but they also refer to Izzi's novel, which she asks him to finish when it becomes obvious that she won't live long enough to do so. In any era, Tom is torn between simply being with Izzi, spending time with her, walking in the snow and admiring the world with her, or locking himself away from her so that he can try to save her. In the Spanish storyline, he leaves his Queen to seek the Tree of Life, knowing that he may never see her again. In the future storyline, he sits at the foot of the tree, begging it to hold on until they reach the dying star. In the present, he goes back and forth, leaving Izzi alone while he experiments on monkeys who may hold the key to curing her, then panicking when he can't find her.

Much of the forward progress of the film is expressed in imagery or in verbal descriptions of an image to come later. When Tom discovers a promising set of compounds to treat tumors, he tells an assistant, "Fold them into each other like two lovers," picturing the cellular structure as identical to the nebula surrounding the stellar Xibalba. It also looks like the roots and branches of the Tree of Life as envisioned in Izzi's book. When Tomas walks through the castle to meet the Queen, lanterns hang in the dark rooms like distant stars. The image is later repeated as Tom moves through space in his bubble of air, stars falling in the background as the bubble rises. There's some bizarre Catholic imagery, too -- a cross bearing a sun with locks of hair inside the glass at the center, Tomas crossing himself with a Mayan dagger, future Tom eating from the host of Izzi's body by breaking bark from the tree and ingesting it. The evil Inquisitor declares that the flesh is a prison keeping men from God, with a Queen who leads people toward the vanity of the body and away from the spirit, yet ultimately the film seems to bear out the belief that eternal life is not being trapped in a house of flesh but reaching to heaven, Xibalba or some other name for the truly eternal: "Death is the road to awe."

This isn't an easy movie, not only because the storylines are so convoluted and the imagery resistant to simple analysis, but because death is awful as well as awe-inspiring. Tom seems on the verge of madness through most of the movie; he can't make rational decisions, knowing that Izzi is going to die, and he'll snatch at any possibility of saving her, whether it means violating medical ethics or the most rudimentary common sense. "Death is a disease like any other, and there's a cure," he insists, expecting to find it with science, at first in his medical lab and later among the stars. Izzi, who hasn't taken science since junior high school, thinks he's going about it wrong, and as she comes closer to dying, she begins to see death not as an end but a new beginning. She tries to impart this belief to Tom so he can finish writing her book, but he finds only horror and insurmountable grief in the thought of losing Izzi.

The final half hour of the film is about Tom's journey to reconcile his love and his loss -- to find the Tree of Life in the past, to find Xibalba in the future, and to find some way of moving forward in the present that honors Izzi and her wishes without letting her go. The future Tom has growth rings tattooed on his arms, presumably to represent the growth of the Izzi-tree, and we see where they began: with a tattoo he gives himself in the present to replace his lost wedding ring, stabbed into his skin with the fountain pen and ink that Izzi gave him so he could finish writing her story. It's a gut-wrenching scene, Tom sitting on his bed half-blind with tears, sobbing as he punctures his skin with the pen because that's a pain more tolerable than the thought of life without his wife. (If you've seen Anthony Minghella's Truly Madly Deeply, the scene where Juliet Stevenson breaks down in her therapist's office, it's that level of agony.)

The Fountain is amazingly beautiful, which I knew from the previews -- the half-finished dream canvas of Renaissance Spain, the walks in the snow, the various incarnations of the tree, the golden light of the nebula. I wish we knew Izzi a bit better; she is troublingly like so many women dying young in movies, ethereal and calm and outrageously beautiful -- Ali MacGraw in Love Story, Winona Ryder in Autumn In New York, Charlize Theron in Sweet November -- making no demands for herself, handing her beloved the mechanism for coping with her loss. She's a bit too much object rather than subject of the story. But in each incarnation of Tom, his terror and anger and grief are completely believable. Jackman really makes me believe that this man loves his wife, that he cannot imagine life without her beside him. It's hard to create believable love, as opposed to chemistry or passion, even in a much longer movie or series. Because of his conviction, for all its sorrow, this is an exceptionally romantic movie.

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