We all understand that death is the inevitability of all life, the slow or sudden ground to a halt of all the natural processes we take for granted. This doesn't mean that we are all prepared for it when it arrives. For some, there is a calm understanding of that finality. For most, we are too caught up in the machinations of living to worry about dying. And for some, it is an all-consuming existential fear - of what it will be like, what it will mean, if anything lies on the other side of it. Even more crushing than the concept of our own deaths is that of the deaths of others. In that, we are likely united. We don't have to witness our own deaths or the repercussions of them, but we have no choice but to bear witness when those in our lives do, and likewise bear the burden of grieving them, moving through the world without them.
When I first saw Darren Aronofsky's 'The Fountain' 15 years ago, at barely 20 years old, death hadn't become a presence in my life yet. I thought about my own death a lot, as anyone who works in the arts probably does at some point and it being the big existential question, but I had never had to look it in the eyes and try to understand it. I had all my grandparents, all my parents, all my friends, all my lovers, all still alive. In many ways, this film was the closest I had come to truly comprehending death, this gigantic, unwieldy, passionate, furious, generous, esoteric, impossible film that took our grapple with life and death and writ it large across time, space and history. It left me shellshocked, dumbstruck, incapable of even speaking. My friends who I had seen it with thoroughly hated it and were tearing it apart all the way home, but in a quiet voice, I had to ask them to save their conversation for another time. I was still trying to process the enormity and the anguish of what I'd seen. I was inconsolable for days.
In the years that followed, death did become a presence, in ways I wasn't expecting. Three years later, my uncle very suddenly died in his sleep. It was unexpected and terrible. That side of my family barely knew how to function, let alone grieve, and I saw them at their best in the following weeks, but more so at their absolute worst. Death here was cruel, selfish and crushing. And then a year later, my ex-boyfriend took his own life. We'd been in love in that way that young people can be, wholly and violently, everything or nothing, but his mental health had not coped, and nine months after we had broken up, he was gone. And I was shattered into millions and millions of pieces. The aftermath of his death and everything surrounding his funeral was beautiful beyond description, acts of generosity and kindness and outpourings of pure sadness.
Throughout that time, 'The Fountain' was never far from my mind. It was the only text I knew that asked direct questions about our relationship with death, and the cosmic, all-consuming way that I felt in the months after my ex-boyfriend had died. I would look out over the city of Melbourne and imagine it crumbling into the ground in an act of cataclysm, wondering how it could still be standing when this unthinkable thing had happened. We often turn to works of art to understand loss and mortality, whether it be Adele singing 'Someone Like You' or the death of Mufasa in 'The Lion King' or Monty Python singing 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life' at the end of 'Life of Brian'. Art can help us understand life and death, and in that moment, even though I was too terrified to watch it again - a terror that still grips me when I consider watching it now - 'The Fountain' was my touchstone. The work of art to help me to understand the death of people I loved.
That conceit lies at the heart of 'The Fountain', one of the most uncompromising, imaginative and demanding works of science fiction in the last 20 years. In the central story, Izzi (Rachel Weisz) is writing a book for her husband Tommy (Hugh Jackman). It is the story of a conquistador Tomas (Jackman) on a quest for Queen Isabel of Spain (Weisz) during the Spanish Inquisition, searching through the heart of South America for the legendary Tree of Life, whose sap will grant eternal life. This mirrors Tommy's own quest: a scientist desperately trying to find a cure for an inoperable brain tumour that will very soon take Izzi's life. While the story of the Tree of Life is Izzi's way of manifesting the metaphor at the heart of Tommy's struggle, his is far more abstract and cosmic, a vision of him in an unknown future, shepherding the dying Tree of Life towards the dying star Xibalba, the place in the heavens the Mayans chose to represent their afterlife. He must get the Tree to Xibalba before it dies, so that it can be reborn and live again. In all three realms of 'The Fountain', connected through theme and symbol, the struggle is the same - a man fighting to conquer death before it claims the woman he loves, and a dying woman who has come to peace with her mortality leading her husband towards that same peace with her death and his own.
Storytelling began as a way to find meaning in the parts of existence we can't fully understand, and Darren Aronofsky uses these same tools in 'The Fountain', not just literally in the story Izzi writes for Tommy, but in the mythical structure of his own story. For many, this film is a frustrating, perhaps pretentious mess, but its refusal to adhere to traditional narrative structures or to make its many meanings abundantly clear to its audience are not acts of arrogance. Parts of 'The Fountain' are incomprehensible because death itself is incomprehensible, and both Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique express that incomprehensibility in the dreamlike, impossible images they create. What struck me on revisiting the film for the first time in 10 years was how much the film relies on intense close-ups far more than sweeping shots of biblical jungles and celestial wonder. The camera holds in close on the faces of Tommy and Izzi, regardless of which time period we are in, to the extent that you feel almost trapped in their grief and devastation. We know that Darren Aronofsky is a wholly uncompromising filmmaker, willing to drive his audience right into the heart of his characters' torment. Through that clearer understanding of his work, that same technique becomes apparent here in 'The Fountain'. He wants you to see the struggle, see the pain, see the devastation. If he is going to tear his soul open to make this film and understand why we die and what it means, he wants to make sure we are there with him, that we see what he sees and feels what he feels.
This places an almost impossible task on Hugh Jackman's shoulders - to express that struggle, not just in a clear emotional language we can connect with and understand, but also through metaphor and symbol. I've always considered this his finest performance, not for the bombast of it but for its honesty. You can see this actor digging deep into himself, confronting the difficult questions we all try to avoid, but with the safety of someone to pull him back and in the knowledge that it is in the pursuit of something great and true. Those of us who love this film talk so much about the way it looks and sounds, but the sound that encapsulates the heart of this film is in the guttural, desperate scream of Tommy in the future as the Tree of Life dies under his hands. On the opposite end, Rachel Weisz must find that sense of profound inner peace in a manner that feels true and generous, without pretension or insincerity. Her performance is an astonishing balance of calm and sorrow, a grace in the face of Tommy's furious pain. Tommy and Izzi are two opposing forces in this film. One believes that death is a disease and the other sees death as an act of creation. In the end, the journey for Tommy is not just to realise that Izzi is right, but to see how damaging and futile his battle with death is. That path doesn't lead to victory but destruction, and to avoid death is to not only avoid life but to tumble head-first into death. This is why Tomas, drinking from the Tree of Life, is consumed by the Tree itself - you cannot avoid death and it will find its way to you, because without death, life cannot continue. In many ways, Izzi understands that her own death will be the only thing that can set Tommy free, to allow for new growth and new possibility, but if Tommy doesn't realise this, he will never allow himself to be open to that once she is gone.
It is born from an artist looking into the heart of all things and somehow trying to express what they saw.
The themes woven within the many fabrics of 'The Fountain' are about as big as a film could tackle, and even with its incredible visuals, unforgiving emotional integrity, uncompromising narrative and symbolic daring, the film always feels like it is pushing at the edges of the frame. Almost as if it is simply too big for a piece of celluloid to contain. Seeing this film for the first time was the closest I had come to finding a similar experience to seeing '2001: A Space Odyssey' for the first time, a film so enormous as to swallow you whole. Unlike '2001' though, its enormity was emotional rather than intellectual. If '2001' is a film that allows you to hear the heartbeat of the universe, 'The Fountain' is a film that allows you to hear the heartbeat of existence, and that heartbeat is made of human laughter, human anguish, the eruption of stars, the soft falling of snow, the last human breath... and Clint Mansell's score. If there is one thing almost everyone who has seen 'The Fountain' can agree on, it's that his score is among the finest ever written. By some miracle, it encapsulates everything Aronofsky tries so desperately to reach for with this film and elevates it to the heavens. It is epic and intimate, timeless and contemporary, furious and terrified and hopeful and passionate and primal. The climactic cue, 'Death is the Road to Awe', might be the best piece of music composed for a film. When the film was released, I remember a review saying that listening to this track was as if you were standing in front of the universe as it finally collapsed; music for the end of existence. When I saw Mansell perform music from his films in 2015, he couldn't even talk about the piece. He simply said, "This is 'Death is the Road to Awe'" and began, and the audience exploded with cheers, sat in reverential awe as it played, and erupted on its final notes. Like everything about 'The Fountain', its score is tremendously special, because like everything about 'The Fountain', it is born from an artist looking into the heart of all things and somehow trying to express what they saw.
In the years following the death of my ex-boyfriend, I refused to revisit 'The Fountain'. I was too scared of it - too scared of its honesty and brutality, too scared it would take me to the edge of sanity and grief and then push me over. In the 10 years since I had last seen it, death returned in both familiar and new ways. I lost my grandmother, one of the most important people in my life, and because of astonishing selfishness on the other side of my family, was not given the chance to grieve her. Another old boyfriend passed away, someone I'd always been fond of and kept in contact with and who was now gone, and I didn't know how to react or feel. My father and I became estranged, a sudden cutting off that left me confused and deeply angry. And a relationship came to an end, as catastrophic as a death, as devastating and incomprehensible and strangely beautiful. Death is an ending, gradual or sudden, and leaves a hole in our souls. I am now nearly 35 years old, and the holes have grown more numerous, more strange, more ragged.
And so I revisited 'The Fountain', sat in a cinema and once again looked deep into it, afraid of what I would see about myself and about the ghosts gathered behind me. And what I found was peace. An understanding that death is an inevitability, but not the finality we think it is. Early in the film, Izzi shares her realisation with Tommy that death is an act of creation. In the film, we see this literally as flowers sprout from Tomas' body at the foot of the Tree of Life, but it's also in the lives that are led after those we love are gone, the way they have enriched our lives. We carry them with us always, permeating our souls the way a human body laid to rest in the ground permeates the soil around it. There is devastation and torment, yes, but there is also beauty. There is beauty in words left behind, in the memory of a sound or a smell or a breath, and that life continues within us, so to come to peace with that is to accept not just death, but being alive. As the score reaches its impossible, unfathomable climax and Tommy's body bursts into the heart of a dying star, with the very film itself bursting out of the four walls of the frame and surrounding us in the absolute glory of life and death itself, we are given that fleeting chance to look into everything that has ever been or will ever be and see how miraculous it is to have lived at all. And in the final moments of this masterpiece, one of the finest films of the past 20 years, we sit in a moment of peace, knowing that, as Tommy whispers to Izzi, that everything is going to be alright. That to live is a miracle and an act of grace.
That death is the road to awe.