Revisiting The Fountain, a masterpiece on dealing with grief through storytelling

Contributed by
Sep 29, 2017

There are movies you keep coming back to again and again over your lifetime. These stories change on subsequent viewings, or contain perfect visuals. Perhaps they strike a chord within their narrative that requires repeat consumption to fully understand, or become more relevant to the lives of viewers at certain points in their lives.

In 2006, director Darren Aronofsky released a film titled The Fountain that fits perfectly into this category. Its beautiful visuals were intended to withstand changes in technology in the hopes that they would stand the test of time. Its story and inherent meaning are a moving target, allowing audiences to view the film differently depending on their own experiences and understanding. When it was first released, The Fountain found middling critical appeal and a very low box-office return, but time has been on its side, as some current critics continue to cite the film as a masterpiece in storytelling.

The story itself takes place across three different time periods. In the 1600s, a Spanish queen sends her most faithful conquistador to "New Spain" (South America) in search of the mythical Tree of Life. In the present, a man attempts to find a cure for the brain tumor that threatens to claim the life of his wife. Centuries in the future, a man travels through space in a bubble with a tree he believes holds the soul of his beloved, heading toward a dying star that will restore her.

On the one hand, The Fountain is a masterful epic spanning centuries as three different couples (played by Rachel Weisz and Hugh Jackman) search for the key to everlasting life. Whether you believe this is done through time travel or reincarnation depends on your point of view when you watch the film. But there's another interpretation, one where the story becomes much smaller, much less epic and much more personal. It is a story of death and grief and finding solace through storytelling. That's because the only timeline really happening is the one taking place in the present.

All throughout the present-day story the couple, Izzi and Tom, deal with Izzi's illness in very different ways. Tom deals by not dealing. As a medical researcher, he is determined to solve the problem. He wants to cure her tumor so he never has to consider her death a reality. Meanwhile, Izzi attempts to force him to face the fact that she is dying because she has already accepted it. The whole time, she has been writing a book about love transcending time and death through which she has come to see "death as an act of creation." She presents the book unfinished to Tom, telling him it is up to him to complete the story and implying that he will only come to understand how it ends after she is gone. He reads through it in her final days, and through that story we can see the journey that Izzi has traveled through her own grief, playing out the stages in prose.

That story begins in the 1600s during the Spanish Inquisition, where a beautiful Queen faces a powerful enemy. Like Izzi's cancer, the High Inquisitor grows more powerful with time and threatens to destroy Spain from within, killing its heretical Queen. The Inquisition itself is even a conflict of the mind -- two warring ideologies -- which inflicts physical pain and death on those who become its victims. The Queen, like Izzi, has stopped fighting that particular fight. For her it is no longer about whether she lives or dies because the villain has become essentially insurmountable. It is not about whether he will kill her, it is when. For this reason she dispatches her most loyal conquistador -- Tomas -- to seek out the Tree of Life in order to offer the both of them everlasting life.

This part of the story, the half of the novel that Izzi has written down (though she claims it is all but the last chapter of the book), tracks very well with her own journey coming to terms with her own mortality. As the person who faces the prospect of her own death, her journey is very different from Tom's. She fights the villain directly, while he can fight it only from the outside. The reality of her death is far more palpable for her than for him. She deals with what is next while he tries to halt time itself.

The narrative also creates parallels in how Izzi seems to view Tom's endless work to find a cure for her brain tumor before it claims her life. We see scenes of her wanting to spend time with him, wanting to be together before she's gone. At the same time, the Queen in her novel wants Tomas to seek out the Tree of Life. Placed against the story of Izzi and Tom, one could argue that it's a way for Izzi to say that she sees his work as a noble, if potentially futile, quest that sadly must take him away from her.

Izzi's contribution to her own novel ends with her still not having quite made it past the fear of death. It is only through further research and introspection that she has gotten to that point. The final scene she is able to write is of Tomas the Conquistador facing down his final opponent, the guard wielding the fiery sword at the gates to the garden. The chapter ends with Tomas ready to face his death at this man's hands. It is here that she is forced to stop, and here that Tom must now pick up the story and continue.

For his part, Tom is also able to work through his own, more traditional form of grief thanks to Izzi and the project she has given him. Over the first two acts of the film, Izzi imparts many of the stories she has learned in her travels and research into Mayan mythology. They are not all necessarily correct, but they are a means of comfort for her, so it's hard to fault her inaccuracies. For instance, she shows Tom the Orion Nebula in the night's sky, an object the Maya named Xibalba after their own underworld. The Milky Way was seen as a pathway to Xibalba. She also talks about the Mayan Tree of Life, which came into existence at the beginning of the world. In the version Izzi tells, the tree sprang from the body of a man, itself a symbol of her "death as an act of creation" belief.

When Tom's part of the novel picks up, we follow his own struggles with death from that of conquerer to acceptance; in many ways, through the five stages of grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance). His version of Tomas does not accept his death at the hands of the guard. He faces him, then strikes him down. He is a man with a single purpose: to command and defy death. He finds the tree beyond the garden gate and immediately drinks of the sap, claiming his immortality.

Tom's half of the story also includes a futuristic narrative running in parallel with the rest of the film. It follows a man in the future who is on a journey to bring the Tree of Life (which he believes contains the soul of the woman he loves) to Xibalba, literally taking this new version of her to a dying star within the Orion Nebula in the belief that when the star explodes she will be reborn. However, the closer he gets to the center of the nebula the more the tree dies. He pleads with it to survive just long enough to get there, but eventually he discovers that it is only through accepting death, through accepting his own death specifically, that they can live forever.

Through this narrative, Tom is exploring a more scientific form of spirituality, one that comes in many ways from the first law of thermodynamics. In its most basic form, it says that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it is only transformed from one form to another. In a supernova, the energy (and matter) within a star is expelled, creating the building blocks of new stars and planets and living things. As Carl Sagan said, "we are all star stuff." In Tom's story, it is when the man accepts that the destruction of his body, and of his beloved tree, will allow them to exist in a brand-new form that he completely understands and accepts "death as an act of creation."

Which brings us back to Tomas and what happens after he drinks the sap from the Tree of Life. Instead of having his youth and vitality restored, he is transformed into vines and flowers. New life is created from his own. He lives forever, but not as a man. Through the story Tom constructs as he slowly deals with the realities of his wife's death, he begins to understand that eternal life is possible, so long as you accept that you have no control over what form it takes. It is about the preservation of the soul beyond the preservation of the body.

This entire premise can be seen as quite meta. Aronofsky has spoken about his inspiration for the film, as he first wrote it in the time shortly after his 30th birthday, when he was dealing with his own existential crisis in getting older, coupled with both of his parents facing cancer diagnoses. He wrote the film in an effort to confront his own feelings about mortality, seeking to tell the story of a man who seeks to save a loved one by conquering death. In some ways then the modern story is his own, itself a way of working through his own grief and fear despite the fact that his parents did not die from their illnesses.

Telling stories, even if they are only for ourselves and not for a mass audience, is a way for us as humans to understand concepts too difficult to face head-on. Narrative, myth, allegory, and metaphor offer us the room to explore our fears and emotions in ways that protect us from the pain of relating them to our own lives directly. In the case of The Fountain, Aronofsky presents us with a multi-layered masterpiece of storytelling via a means of coping for the audience, a philosophy on life and death and spirituality, and a window into his own grieving process. As a viewer, it can provide you a path to peace in your own life, can simply be a means of entertainment, or can simply offer comfort in the fact that there is no one way to grieve.