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The Haptic image of Darren Aronofsky’s ‘The Fountain’

The Fountain

This was one of my favourite films of 2006. While it failed critically and commercially with film festival attendees in Venice publicly booing the film. The Fountain is an emotionally overwhelming film but for some reason this movie stayed with me. I watched it several times on DVD, loving the experience but never understanding what it was that I enjoyed. I just knew that there was something unique that Darren Aronofsky captured.

This piece will look at two scenes that provoked an emotional response. The bathtub scene with Izzy and Tommy, and the Museum scene with Izzy and Tommy. These scenes were selected for analysis not because they are the most interesting visually, because these scenes push the film forward as the most affective character sequences.  These scenes will be examined through the conceptual theory of the “haptic image”; this is a physical and unconscious response to something seen.  In the bathtub scene the audience feels the love these characters share, in the museum scene we experience the disconnection between life and death.

These scenes not only have a sensory response through the “haptic image” but once the haptic response has manifested in the audience, the film takes on a new life. This is a film that at its core is a metaphor on coping with death. It is a film about loss and isolation.

Three Timelines

The Fountain is a film within three time lines. This moves from a historical period film to contemporary drama and psychedelic post-mortem science fiction. All three time lines contain characters with variations of the names Thomas and Isabelle (played by Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz). Tomas the conquistador is searching for the ‘Tree of Life’ on behalf of Queen Isabella. Tommy the contemporary neurologist trying to extract a cure from a rare tree found in Guatemala for Izzy; his dying wife. Tom the astronaut maintains a solitary existence in an indecipherable point in space and time. Tom is travelling through space in a bubble with the ‘Tree of Life’. This appears to be the future as Tom is travelling through space, where future and the past meet at the edge of the universe where the only way to continue to exist is to die as an act of creation.  This film moves into its dramatic core with the two central characters of Tommy and Izzy. This becomes a film of not only aesthetic beauty but a film with an emotional core.

The Bathtub

A film such as The Fountain is a film to be experienced not seen. The experience of this film is too much for a single viewing. It has been compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey for its final act, unlike Kubrick this film is an affective visual experience. It creates affective responses not only via the effects but through the affective performances of Jackman and Weisz whose close-ups in the bathtub scene where Izzi admits she is afraid and she feels her body changing tie the film together in one of the simplest scenes but also one of the most affective due to the use of ‘the gaze’.

The haptic visuality of this scene is that it feels as if Izzi is right in front of you. This produces a sense of empathy for Izzi where the audience can feel Tommy’s love for Izzi and her love for Tommy. There is nothing else on the screen but Weisz and Jackman. It is just the two performances that contain several close-up’s of the actors that bring the audience in closer than at any other point in the film. This scene moves us into Tommy’s point of view. Tommy’s gaze. This moves the viewer away from just being an observer on the journey of Tom (future) and Tomas (past). This close up brings the audience into the intimacy between Tommy and Izzi. This scene may not be the most visually spectacular it is arguably the most moving. This is a focal point in the story of a woman accepting her death. The close ups of Tommy mirror the emotional state of the viewer. This is Izzi’s world we are journeying through and Tommy/Tom/Tomas is the traveler. This scene fades to white [1].

Death as an act of creation.

Izzi visits the museum and discusses death with Tommy using the metaphor of Xibulba[2] theorizing that ‘death is an act of creation’ where new life springs from the dying person’s life force. The first father of her story from the Mayan allegory dies in act of creation in that he fuses with the star to give birth to mankind.

Tommy sees death as a disease; something to be cured. Izzi dying is something he is unable to deal with. In trying to save Izzi, she is neglected. As Tommy moves away from Izzi to get the car. The light changes from a golden light to a white spot light directly on Izzy. Izzy looks up to the ceiling before fainting. Tommy catches her just in time. The scene cuts to the eternal man’s nebula and then quickly moves back to the hospital.

Within this scene there is a mental and a bodily  experience. The audience can haptically feel the life being pulled out Izzi with the adjustment of the lighting and Hugh Jackman’s departure to get the car after hearing something profound about death. This was something Tommy needed to hear. The book Izzi is writing that the audience experience is a parting gift for Tommy. The fountain pen as a gift is not only symbolic of the title being ‘The Fountain’ but is something Izzi leaves for Tommy to complete. From this point it becomes clearer that the journey of all of these characters are intrinsically connected by death and rebirth and the journey of Tom, the space traveler has new meaning.

‘The Fountain’ as an extension of the mind

Where the spectator is within this story is debatable. On one level Izzi is writing a story that contains the historical and futuristic aspects. The story she is writing titled “The Fountain” is a mimesis of her internal struggle to deal with death. Tom the eternal man of the future floating through space in a bubble to deliver the tree of life appears to be fully aware of everything that preceded him. Tom appears to be aware of the present events and Izzi’s death as if they are a distant memory or a premonition of what is to come. The Mayan warrior who kills Tomas has a vision of Tom as the first father. As Izzi moves closer to death so does the tree in the space bubble. Thus there is no single point in time, in which this film stems from. Each story exists within the other stories. Trying to find a beginning and end to a film about life cycles is a moot point.

Whether these alternate events take place within Tommy’s mind, Izzi’s novel or if Tommy and Izzi are distant memories is debatable. Perhaps grief cannot be put into words and needs to be experienced. Visualization of the grieving process is not an easy task without going into melodrama.

The representations we seek and the ‘haptic’ perceptions we discover

The language of film taps into our psyche. We do not always understand what we see. We may attempt to create our own meaning as a representation of our lives. We often want to relive an aspect of our lives through film. Occasionally films do not conform to the representational model. They may exist outside normal perceptions where we cannot relate what we are seeing to our lives. This often happens with films that are abstract and challenge conventions of the film formula of the three-act structure. These films often become absorbed in our unconscious. Even with these films we still try to make sense of them. Where some scenes from The Fountain fit with reality the viewer is able to relate to what is happening on screen. The story of present day Tom (Hugh Jackman) trying to save his wife is relatable to an audience. This is a love story, to a degree the entire film is a love story about loss and accepting death as a natural part of life.

[1] The white fade out is common in the films of Darren Aronofsky. In The Requiem for a Dream DVD Commentary, he said that he uses the white fades early in the film to represent hope for his characters.

[2] This was a Mayan nebula that surrounds a dying star.

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