The Fountain, directed by Darren Aronofsky (known primarily for his work on Requiem for a Dream and Pi), is a visual masterpiece backed by a fantastic score and finished up with a wealth of truly human emotion that creates empathy in some of the most passive viewers. Every scene is rich with color and carefully connected with a sensible, and almost undetectable background score which subtly lends to the feeling of the scene without being obtrusive. However, a great movie is not built simply on pretty pictures and fine music. Sadly, many films that have been produced over the last few years have attempted to ride on their special effects, epic scores, or famous actors while forgetting the essential quality that must be the center of every movie; story. Without story, a film becomes a work of visual art. This is not to say that visual art is any less respectable than any other form of art (poetry, pottery, performance art etc.), but to point out that film, as a medium, serves multiple purposes, both on a visual level and on a story level. It is the synthesis of multiple art forms into something new. As a culture, we have become accustomed to a film which presents a simplistic or “classic” story with very little depth and absolutely no thought provoking material. As a result, a movie that reaches deep into the heart of the art form that is film is rejected because viewers have simply forgotten how to handle a complex story that asks more of its audience than passive viewing. Tragically, this is the case with The Fountain.
The Fountain is not written to be easily deciphered or simply passively watched, but to provoke an emotional and intellectual response. Aronofsky made a deliberate decision to force his viewers to ask questions and analyze the movie on a much deeper level than the average moviegoer is used to. As a result, the film was quickly passed up by many theaters nationwide. Some viewers may have been lucky enough to have this film appear in their local theaters, but much of the populace was not afforded the opportunity of seeing this film on the big screen, which is a shame as the movie is so heavily visual. Despite all of this, the movie has much to offer its audiences. This article is for those moviegoers who, despite their best efforts, are finding this movie hard to interpret. There will be no solid explanations to follow, but, instead, a series of possibilities that might give you a base to work from on your own interpretation. For anyone who has not seen the film yet, this article is not meant simply as a review, but as an analysis. What follows will talk about many of the scenes and give a great deal of story recap. If you have yet to see the movie, you should probably discontinue your reading until you have had the chance to view the film.
Within the overarching story of The Fountain, there are three distinct story lines. Although the three stories are interconnected, both in theme and by the lead actors, they are quite separate in their filming and their styles. As viewers, we are asked to handle each one, both as an independent entity, and as a building block in the overall story. The difficulty in understanding The Fountain lies in interpreting each individual story and fitting it into the puzzle that is the whole. So, instead of spending too much time analyzing small parts of the film, unless it’s important to the greater whole, we will focus on how the three stories can be combined into one concept. For simplicity’s sake, the story earliest in time period, the conquistador on a quest for the tree of life at the request of his queen, will be referred to simply as the Spanish story. The story which appears to take place in present day will be referred to as present day and the story taking place in what can only be described as the giant snow globe will be referred to as the snow globe story. Each of these three pieces must be handled in order to make a decent interpretation of the movie.
One of the easiest interpretations to explain, and to understand, involves reincarnation or eternal life. On a base level, the story may be viewed as the lives of a single couple, bound by love, but doomed to make the same mistakes throughout their consecutive existences. As with most of the interpretations that can be extracted from the film, there is difficulty making all three pieces fit together believably. In this particular case, the Spanish story seems to be the problem. The story exists as both a visual past, and a story with the present day. Izzy is writing The Fountain in present day while Tom experiences it through her writing. However, the other two stories seem to fit together well if the whole movie is interpreted as a progression of linear events. After Izzy dies in the present day, the snow globe story seems to be a strange, but logical progression into the future, either through reincarnation or through the restorative powers of the tree of life. Either way, this train of thought makes a large leap in accepting the power of either reincarnation or the tree of life. In the snow globe story, Tommy attempts to take a tree, believed to contain the spirit of his dead wife, to a dying nebula so that they may both be reborn in the stars. The tree, however, dies just before they reach the nebula, just as Tom’s wife dies in the present just before he can develop a cure for her fatal illness. Here, it seems, the character of Tom, reincarnated or immortal, has made the same mistake twice. His life was spent on a quest to prevent death, but he neglected to spend the time he had with the woman he loved. The quest to cheat death results in regrets which Tom can barely manage to contain.
The Spanish story is not as easy to handle. The only way the Spanish story line can fit into the greater whole is to interpret Izzy’s book not only as a work of fiction, but as a recollection of a past life, which doesn’t seem like too great a leap as this interpretation already requires an acceptance of past lives or the healing power of a fabled tree. If we accept the book as a past life remembered, then the Spanish story fits nicely with the overall theme that can be extrapolated from this interpretation. In the Spanish story, Thomas goes on a quest for his queen, just as he quests for his love in the other two stories, but once again he is consumed by his quest and loses sight of what is important; his love. In the Spanish story, the conquistador Thomas is actually physically absorbed by his quest. When he drinks from the tree of life, he is transfigured into a group of flowers. He becomes completely consumed by the very thing he has been questing for and once again loses his love because he focused more on what he believed would save her than spending every waking moment with her. Although this interpretation may be hard to swallow, it is one of the easiest to handle. The theme stands out as a bold warning to anyone who would be consumed by something other than their love for the people around them.
Going a bit deeper into the film, any one storyline, or for that matter all of them at once, can be interpreted as symbolic for something intangible and inherently impossible to portray in simple, straight forward story. The next few interpretations will explain how the film can be seen as symbolic in a variety of ways.
My favorite explanation for the variety of stories in The Fountain roots in explaining the snow globe not as a truly realistic representation of a future possibility, but as a symbolic story meant to show the spiritual journey of a man who has lost his wife after years of pursuing a cure which came a few months too late. This journey can not possibly be shown through some simplistic story, but must be examined through a much more abstract form which culminated in the snow globe story line of The Fountain. Most of the imagery seems to lean towards a very representational interpretation as opposed to a realistic interpretation of the snow globe. First of all, the snow globe storyline is bracketed by Tom in the Lotus Blossom pose. This pose is traditionally, even stereotypically, linked to Buddhism which is a very introspective religion, focusing on the internal landscape of the individual over anything else. This pose seems almost bizarre when it appears in the movie, but after analysis, it may very well have a specific purpose. When a director intentionally bookends a story with an element that seems almost out of place, the critical viewer must ask themselves why that element was included. In the case of the Lotus Blossom pose, it seems that Aronofsky was pointing towards a particular interpretation of the snow globe story. He may have wanted his viewers to understand the snow globe story as an internal landscape, not as a realistic setting. All of the imagery in this particular storyline is very surreal, contrasting quite heavily with the other two stories which, although somewhat bizarre, seem grounded in some form of reality. If the snow globe story is seen as representational, then we are given the story of Tom dealing with the loss of his wife. He continues his quest for eternal life, even after his wife has become nothing but memory. He feeds on her memory which keeps him focused on his quest, which can be seen as his feeding on the tree in the snow globe. In the end, he must eventually accept death and find peace which can be seen through the final explosion which destroys the bubble he has created for himself.
If the snow globe is taken as the only purely representational element of the story, then the present his handled as the realistic depiction of what is actually happening in the story and the Spanish story is the novel, which in itself is the representation of how Izzy sees life and her husband’s quest for the cure to her illness. This interpretation still has one flaw; the tree of life appearing in both the novel and the present. Izzy writes about the tree of life before ever learning about her husband’s discovery. Sadly, this strange coincidence may break down this interpretation as a definite explanation for the film, but it is only one element that may be explained through further analysis.
One of the most complicated, and therefore hardest to write, explanations for the film requires that all three stories be viewed as representational. All three stories bear classic earmarks of traditional stories which may mark each one as only one representation of a very complicated concept: love. The Spanish story is quite obviously rooted in the traditional adventure epic which dates back to before written language. However, a much more recent example would be the Indiana Jones stories. A man goes on a quest for a fabled artifact and, after following various obscure clues, finds himself in the presence of something far greater than himself. The present story deals with the modern classic of medical drama. Tom, the rogue doctor on a mission, discovers a cure, after disobeying the rules set up to protect the people around him. He focuses on the cure but discovers only moments to late to save the person he truly cares about. The future story falls into classic science fiction which often deals with a long space flight that ends with the hero finding out that what they were searching for didn’t require millions of miles of journey, but instead a journey inside themselves. Each story is a classic example of ideas we, as readers and viewers, are more than prepared to handle. This does not discredit the film, but actually shows a deep analysis of how viewers may be exposed to a difficult concept using old stories in a new way.
Overall, the film is not easily handled by any one interpretation, but opens itself up to a variety of ideas and concepts, which may be exactly what Aronofsky was striving for with his filming and screenplay. In the modern film world, not many stories strive to leave their readers with questions when the final credits roll. Aronofsky not only left questions, but handed his film to the viewers to be interpreted. In a sense, the film is much like a playwright handing his story over to a group of actors who will interpret the cold text and breath their own life into it. We, as viewers, are given the opportunity to play with the story until a meaning, unique to each viewer, rises from the images and music to touch us in personal ways. Although analysis may be a dying art, it is my opinion that more films like this should be provided to the movie going world.
The Fountain. Dir. Darren Aronofsky. Perf. Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2006.