Beauty is momentary in the mind --
A fitful tracing of a portal:
But in the flesh it is immortal. -- Wallace Stevens
There. That's the best, shortest version of any pseudo-profound gibberish about life, mortality, romance, and the thousand shocks that flesh is heir to that you might stumble across in The Fountain, Darren Aronofsky's bewildering, interminable, and lamebrained new film. Know going in that The Fountain is an absolute failure. But because of Aronofsky's imagination and absolute conviction that no one has ever linked love, death, and time before in a movie, his new work is not nearly as repulsive as the year's other cinematic low points.
Set in three different eras -- the 1500s, the early 21st century, and some faraway time-space beyond the "beyond the infinite" section of 2001 -- The Fountain begins when Spanish conquistador Antonio (Hugh Jackman) faces off with a Mayan holy man who fells the explorer with a blow from his flaming sword. But this narrative strand may or may not be a cliffhanger chapter ending to a dumb unfinished novel that haunts the dreams of a distant-future Antonio (now called Tony, perhaps), who awakens in his snow-globe universe just as the sword hits its target. Jackman also plays this future Tony -- who, like all dystopian survivors, is bald and dressed as a Depression-era chain-gang worker -- but Future Tony may also be the immortal version of a medical-researcher in the "present day" portion of the film whose discovery of a miraculous plant in the Guatemalan wilderness may reverse the aging process and lead to immortality. Don't worry. It'll all make no sense when you see it.
The two leads spanning time in The Fountain are solipsistic and disagreeable in all of their incarnations. Jackman's medical researcher is apparently so driven and intelligent that he forbids his colleagues from finishing sentences in his presence. Rachel Weisz, who plays Tom's wife (and Queen Isabella in the 16th-century strand of the story and the writer of the novel that haunts Future Tony), is a doe-eyed waif with all the dramatic force of meringue.
Most puzzling of all is Aronofsky's disregard for film grammar. Scenes often fade to white or black when a character is in the middle of completing a key action. Actors deliver throwaway lines in extreme, lingering close-ups. The film wields soppy string music as a kind of emotional cattle prod, yet there's a stupefying, unimportant sequence when all the sound drops out For Dramatic Effect. Images, motifs, and camera angles attempting to link the time periods are repeated endlessly, but any allegorical significance is neither strengthened nor clarified. Far too much of The Fountain is precocious, adolescent, formal experimentation at its most clever and least insightful.
The only things that might reward such a tortuous journey are the baroque touches that explode into golden cosmic incomprehension at the film's end. The Fountain's final freakout offers the only visible glimpse of beautiful, terrifying transcendence that Aronofsky strove so hard to create.