It's love, but not as we know it

Spiritual, sincere and downright silly, this romantic story is weirdly intoxicating

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Figuring out what's happening is one of the challenges in watching The Fountain, which begins in 16th-century Spain and ends somewhere in deep space in the 26th century, possibly on a Tuesday. Another challenge is trying not to laugh. This story of a man's search for eternal life is romantic and endearingly silly. The childlike sincerity of the director, Darren Aronofsky, the hotshot behind Pi (1998) and Requiem for a Dream (2000), gives even the most berserk passages a wayward charm. Sincerity is evident, too, in his lead actor, Hugh Jackman, who appears bald-headed in pyjamas, practising yoga in zero gravity as he drifts through the galaxy in an oversized snow globe. The real achievement is that he keeps a straight face.

Jackman portrays three incarnations of the same man, each one devoted to a woman played by Rachel Weisz. In the present day, he is Tommy Creo, a scientist so consumed by work that he neglects his dying spouse, Izzi, whose life he is trying to save. Rather than enjoying what little time they have left, Tommy hangs out with the chimpanzees into whose brains he has been injecting a compound harvested from Guatemalan trees. You can't blame him - when it comes to personality, the chimps have the edge over Izzi.

She's a lovely girl, given to doing the sorts of enchanting things that no one ever does in real life, like stargazing barefoot in the snow. Smiling beatifically on her deathbed, she looks better than most people do on their wedding day. But she never gets to be more than an idealised blur, a catalyst for the film's exploration of love and grief. It is touching that the role of Izzi is something of a love letter from Aronofsky to Weisz, his real-life fiancée, but perhaps next time he could write it in ink, not syrup.

As her life ebbs away, Izzi is trying to complete a novel called The Fountain, extracts from which we see dramatised. It concerns the shaggy-haired, 16th-century conquistador Tomas (Jackman), who is entreated by the besieged Queen Isabel (Weisz) to find the Tree of Life, which holds the key to immortality. With righteousness and some tight-fitting leather trousers in his favour, Tomas acquits himself well in a set-to with the Mayans, who are presumably disgruntled now that Apocalypto is doing so well and their agents didn't negotiate a slice of the profits.

Intercut with the stories of Tomas and Tommy is a strand following the astronaut Tom as he hurtles through space towards the Xibalba nebula with not so much as an in-flight magazine for company. All he has with him is a gnarled tree and some dislocated memories of a mysterious woman who keeps exhorting him to "Finish it". We know her to be a hallucination of Izzi, whose last wish was for her husband to complete her novel. Tom, who is Tommy reincarnated, turns for solace to his tree, which, it seems fair to conclude, is a reincarnation of Izzi. The three stories converge in a wigged-out sequence in which Tomas quaffs creamy sap from the Tree of Life - think American Pie played straight, though "straight" is the wrong word in this context - and a psychedelic light-show unfolds that will have ageing hippies getting all nostalgic about the first time they dropped acid.

The Fountain hit the headlines four years ago when its original leading man, Brad Pitt, walked off the set. Creative differences were cited, which could mean that the actor baulked at all the sap-drinking and yoga that was expected of him. Or maybe he just couldn't fathom Aronofsky's flights of fancy, which are couched in strangely claustrophobic, almost dingy visuals; at times, the picture resembles 2001: a space odyssey shot in a broom cupboard. But the film's transparent belief in the power of love, and the power of stories about the power of love, can be intoxicating. There's no arguing with the intensity of Jackman's performance, or the conviction of Clint Mansell's forceful score. On the other hand, you could debate the meaning of the film until the chimps come home. The Fountain may be a bit wet in places, but it's certainly fun to splash around in.

Pick of the week

Iraq in Fragments (12A)
dir: James Longley
Documentary comprising three tales of modern Iraq.

Black Book (15)
dir: Paul Verhoeven
Barnstorming Second World War thriller that centres on a Jewish chanteuse in the Dutch Resistance.

Apocalypto (18)
dir: Mel Gibson
Heads will roll in this rather gory portrait of the fall of the ancient Mayan civilisation.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Climate change

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis