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The Fountain

Year: 2006
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Producer: Arnon Milchan
Writer: Darren Aronofsky/Ari Handel
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz

Releasing George Clooney-starrer Solaris in 2002, 20th Century Fox had no idea what to do with it. With James Cameron's name attached (as producer), they tried to flog it as a sci-fi movie, encouraging the gossip about Clooney's bare arse in a desperate attempt to stave off audience apathy. Neither strategy worked, the film raking back less than a third of its budget.

Warner Bros are faced with a similar conundrum in selling The Fountain. It's neither a sci-fi nor a romance film, but strangely both at once. There's no sex, no action and no spaceships. Aronofsky's name is enough to drag in film student types, but Warners' marketing executives must be reaching for the same bottle of Zoloft, The Fountain having made almost the exact fraction of its budget Stephen Soderbergh's anti sci-fi chin-stroker did a few years before.

It's a shame, because some movies should be allowed to exist as art for art's sake, not so Rupert Murdoch's options go up a percent this quarter. By that measure alone, The Fountain is the worthiest film in a long time, a thing of beauty with its own reason for being.

A famous almost-never-was when original stars Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt bailed, it's a love story that plays out simultaneously in three time periods. In the 1500's, Spanish soldier Tomas is charged by the embattled Spanish Queen to find the fabled Tree of Life from Biblical times in the new colonies of South America to free the country from the grip of the Grand Inquisitor.

In the present day, Tom is a medical researcher losing his beautiful wife to a brain tumour. Stumbling upon the regenerative properties of a rare tree bark from South America, the race is on to develop it in time to save her.

And in 2500, a space aviator crosses the heavens in a giant bubble along with a garden that centres around a grand tree, apparently infused with the spirit of his lover. They're bound for the nebula of a dying star which he believes will bring her back when it dies - death as an act of creation, as the modern day version of his wife calls it 500 years before.

That's the conundrum of The Fountain for us; threads both obtuse and obscure connect the three stories in a cross hatch of ideas that signal symbologies as much as narrative arcs.

Each story, with Jackman and Weisz playing the lovers, is about a race against time. Taken together, they're a symphony about the drive to live forever and the refusal to accept that we have to lose those we love. Tomas/Tom/The Astronaut spends 1,000 years trying to bring Queen Isabel/Izzi/The Tree of life back to him so they can be together. If there's any character arc, it's that he has to learn to accept losing her. One of the most poignant and saddest lines in the film is spoken more than once; 'we almost made it'.

Many will hate it, scratching their heads in confusion as if they've come out of a Lynch film, but there is a narrative logic to almost everything that happens. The nagging feeling that it all works might just be Fox marketing's saving grace as people embrace it on DVD to try to work it out.

But Aronofsky is much more than a Tarantino-inspired plot-chopper. The colours, moods and tones of the film are like a Monet painting. Every frame is a thing of beauty, every rhythm a sensual pleasure with close ups of whispering mouths, kisses on skin and loving touch. Jackman and Weisz's love is a living, breathing animal and while plenty of film publicity craps on about the characters being the most important thing, The Fountain makes it finally true.

Everything's connected, from the elemental nature of love to the motifs that not only stitch the story together but also symbolise everything we think about love and death - the Tree, a seed, a ring and the decay of the flesh.

With increasingly obvious nods to Buddhism, The Fountain suffers a little from the same syndrome as Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, with a few climaxes too many, but the music, colours, beauty and beating heart make it one you'll be thinking about for a long time.

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