Love, death, life and the silly sublime

To be fair: watching The Fountain recorded from digital TV, the compression turning any dark scene into black (“none more black”) with a handful of flecks of light, isn’t really the best way to see the film for the first time. Darren Aronofsky’s follow-up to his much-lauded Requiem for a Dream, the kind of film even I can’t describe as bitter-sweet, is intensely visual, and if the first five minutes turn into a frantic game of “It’s a… it’s an elephant, I think. A black elephant. At night. No, it’s a spaceship. At night. And it’s black. Is the TV on?”, the film suffers. (Or, depending on how you look at things, the audience suffers.)

The rare moments when I could not only see what was going on on-screen but actually saw enough of the image to appreciate it, the film definitely proved to be a feast for the eyes. And it wasn’t just pretty – much of what Aronofsky shows us is evocative and beautiful. (Pretty is to Beautiful as Liv Tyler is to Cate Blanchett, if you ask me.) There’s one image in particular, Queen Isabella’s chamber lit by hundreds of tiny lamps hung from the ceiling, that I found quite stunning.

Kitschy or sublime? You decide.

But while some of the imagery is sublime, some – especially in the last half hour of the film – are plain silly. I don’t mind the latent (or not so latent) ‘New Ageyness’ of The Fountain, because as a visual poem on love, death and a man’s inability to let go the film works for me. But then you got bald yoga master Hugh Jackman in the lotus position, floating towards some cosmic birth canal, and awe is replaced by incredulous giggles. Same goes for the scene where Jackman, as a Spanish conquistador, is consumed by flowers sprouting from his torso as if he was the world’s sexiest, silliest Paul Daniels magic trick. I get what the scene’s trying to do, but it just looks… well, naff. Combine that with the film’s po-faced tone and the film doesn’t do itself any favours.

At some point I hope to watch the film again, with subtitles (so I can figure out what those Spaniards are shouting in the rain) and adequate visual quality. I expect that it’ll pull me in more, which in turn might make me forget (or at least forgive) the unintentional humour of scenes that would have had Dr Manhattan raise one implacable, blue eyebrow. Clint Mansell’s lyrical score will definitely help – it did the first time, to the extent that I was more captivated by the end credits than by what had been going on ten minutes before.

Right now, though, I think that The Fountain works much, much better as the comic book version, which the script was turned into after a first attempt to film it failed. It has all the elements of Aronofsky’s movie, but what looks silly in the film works much better in the stylised drawings (somewhat reminiscent of Dave McKean’s work on Arkham Asylum, although less abstract). It still borders on New Age kitsch, but as far as I’m concerned it pulls it off. Perhaps the best thing would be to read the comic while listening to Mansell’s soundtrack. And, if that’s your cup of tea, fantasising about Hugh Jackman.

Naked dude floating in space. Trippy.

P.S.: Much more nudity in the comic. (Both Rachel Weisz and Hugh Jackman remain chastely dressed throughout the film.) But it’s artistic nudity (“and in the end, isn’t that the real truth?”). And not even close to the full-on pornography of a Lost Girls.