The Fountain is a perfect example of the Pisces archetype on film. It’s a visionary love story about the quest for immortality that interweaves three parallel storylines that span a thousand years. This is probably Darren Aronofsky’s best film. It’s a work of art with stunning visuals, a glorious soundtrack and beautiful performances by the two leads, Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz.
It doesn’t look like any other film either. This is because the special effects were created using the macro photography of Peter Parks. He brewed bacteria and chemicals to create reactions and then filmed the results. So the spectacular images of space were actually shot in a Petri dish!
When I first saw The Fountain on the big screen (a must, if you can), I left the cinema beaming. As a mystic, it’s rare that I get that kind of validating experience watching a film and it quickly became my favourite. It’s profoundly spiritual and mystical and can only really be understood on that level. Having said that, there are multiple interpretations and Aronofsky has described it as a “puzzle box for the viewer.”
The film uses a non-linear structure, recurring motifs and match cuts to blur the lines of reality. This makes it hard to tell what’s real and what’s vision or metaphor or both. The circular story is like a Möbius strip that loops back around to the start. This provides greater depth and meaning to what you’ve already seen, so the film rewards multiple views. There are so many layers that you’ll find new insights each time you watch it.
Here’s the inevitable !!SPOILER WARNING!!, although, if you haven’t seen it, don’t worry: these notes may enhance your enjoyment when/if you do watch the film – which I urge you to do!
The three storylines appear to follow three incarnations of the same couple – variations of Tom and Isabel. It starts in 1500 with Tomas the conquistador and Queen Isabella of Spain, who sends him on a quest for the Tree of Life. The Inquisition is destroying her kingdom and she needs Tomas to free Spain from tyranny. In Guatemala, Tomas finds a hidden temple, and some angry Mayans, and confronts the Lord of Xibalba, who guards the Tree of Life…
Meanwhile, in 2000, scientist Tommy Creo is losing his wife, Izzi, to a brain tumour. She has accepted her mortality and is writing a story called ‘The Fountain’ about a conquistador and his queen. Tommy is obsessed with finding a cure for death and uses samples from a miraculous tree in Guatemala in his research. Unfortunately, a breakthrough comes too late to save Izzi, but she leaves him a task to complete: he must finish her story by writing the final chapter. The story breaks off just as Tomas confronts the guardian of the tree…
Meanwhile, in 2500, astronaut Tom, travels in a spherical spaceship with a dying tree. He’s on the way to a nebula in the Orion constellation, known to the Mayans as Xibalba, the location of their underworld. The star is about to explode and when it does, he hopes it will bring the tree back to life.
On the journey, Tom eats from the tree and appears to have the memories of Tommy Creo. He talks to the tree as if it’s his wife, Izzi, and continues the task of finishing her story. But the tree dies before they reach the nebula and Tom must confront the reality of death. When he does, and Tomas drinks from the Tree of Life, he discovers the real meaning of eternal life…
The time-shifting narrative isn’t what it appears and the dates aren’t in the film – they were only on the trailer. The timelines intersect and breakdown completely by the end of the film, so if you try to interpret the story literally you’ll give yourself a headache – and miss the point. It’s safe to say the film isn’t about reincarnation or an immortal astronaut talking to a tree he believes is his long-dead wife.
The obvious interpretation is the one that makes the most sense:
The present day storyline of Tommy and Izzi is the only ‘real’ part of the story. The past is Izzi’s book, either her writing it or Tommy reading it or a mixture of both. She writes the book to help her deal with her own death – the Inquisition destroying Queen Isabella’s empire being a metaphor for the tumour growing in her brain. But it’s also a gift to Tommy, to help him grieve and learn to accept death. The future storyline is internal and represents Tommy struggling with his grief and trying to finish Izzi’s book.
The heart of the film is an intimate portrait of grief and how the acceptance of death leads to grace. It explores obsession, the power of storytelling, and the transcendence of love, but it can also be seen as a metaphor for spiritual awakening. We could call this the mystical interpretation:
In this version, Tommy and Izzi are two sides of one person and the whole thing happens internally. As a scientist, Tom could represent the ‘left side’ of the brain, while the creative Izzi represents the ‘right side’. The story is about bringing these two sides into balance by unifying the opposites – anima and animus, yin and yang. In the future storyline, Tom internalises the tree, i.e. the feminine side of his nature represented by his wife, and that makes his breakthrough possible.
So Tom is the main character and Izzi represents his soul or anima. She could be a psychopomp, guiding him to acceptance of death and the surrender of his ego – like Beatrice in Dante’s Divine Comedy. The story then becomes a meditation or shamanic journey in which Tom reclaims his soul and achieves awakening.
The film draws on the symbolism of Christianity, Kabbalah, and alchemy, as well as a Mayan creation myth. But it begins with the fall of mankind and a quote from Genesis, verse 3:24:
“Therefore, the Lord God banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and placed a flaming sword to protect the tree of life.”
Tom and Izzi can be seen as Adam and Eve, but they could also represent the two trees in the garden. Tom, as a scientist, stands for the Tree of Knowledge, while Izzi is the Tree of Life. Queen Isabella wears a tree-like dress and stands behind screens that look like branches. She’s presented as the High Priestess in the tarot deck, between two pillars and writing in the book of wisdom.
In the Bible, Proverbs, verse 3:18 says: “She is a tree of life to those who embrace her; and happy are those who hold her fast.” Sometimes it’s translated as “Wisdom is a tree of life…” and it actually refers to Asherah, the original wife of God who was written out of the myths. In The Fountain, Tom’s wife becomes the tree in the future timeline and her hairs grow from the tree’s bark.
The Tree of Life is also known as the World Tree, or Axis Mundi, the link between heaven and earth. In Mayan mythology, the tree is in the underworld, or Xibalba, under the earth. But in some myths, the underworld is reached via the Milky Way. In the film, Xibalba becomes a dying star in the Orion nebula – a link to Osiris, Egyptian god of the dead and rebirth.
As part of her research, Izzi visits the ‘Divine Words’ exhibition at a museum to show Tommy a page from a Mayan book in the Dresden Codex. She tells him a creation myth about the First Father who sacrificed himself to create the world and how his body became the tree of life. This introduces the idea of “death as an act of creation” – similar to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The cross being the tree of life, the axis of the world.
This idea can also be seen in the Kabbalah where the Tree of Life consists of ten Sephirot, meaning ‘emanations’, through which God, or the infinite, manifests existence. Malkuth is at the bottom of the tree and represents the earth and physical world. Kether is at the top and represents the divine Self.
The Sephirot are joined by pathways arranged in a series of triangular relationships in three columns that represent different dimensions of life. Divine grace flows down through the tree from Kether to all realms. Our task is to become receptive to that grace by balancing the two sides of our being into harmony.
We see this process in the story as Tom starts out in denial and fear of death and moves towards acceptance. The film mirrors this by beginning in darkness at the bottom of the world, and slowly climbs into the light. Many of the shots are designed to be a journey from dark to light, moving along tunnels, corridors, and across spaces. This also mirrors the movement between the Sephirot in the Tree of Life.
Each timeline in the film is characterised by a different shape: the past features triangles and pyramids, the present is all squares and boxes, while the future is circles and spheres. In alchemy, these shapes represent the various parts that must be unified to achieve wholeness. When you combine them, you get the alchemical symbol for the Philosopher’s Stone, the goal of the Great Work.
The circle represents infinity, but also the original chaos of the universe which must be given form. The square represents the four elements and the body, while the triangle represents spirit (or spirit and soul). The Great Work is the process of transmuting the Prima Materia, made of three elements: body, soul, and spirit – into gold.
In the film, the three storylines each represent one of these elements:
- The body is the past in Spain and Guatemala – dark and earthy, blood and death.
- The soul is the present with Izzi – Luna, white, snow, metal and silver.
- The spirit is the future with Tom – Sol, gold, stars and space.
All three elements must work together to achieve wholeness and the process of achieving this is revealed in the Rosary of the Philosophers, first printed in 1550. Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but the first image in the series of woodcuts is a fountain. It has three spouts that represent the inner soul, but at the start of the process, these parts aren’t integrated.
The next two images show the King and the Queen, or Sol and Luna, who need to be united. Obviously, Sol is Tom and Luna is Izzi. The King and Queen unite in the Conjunction, or sacred marriage, initially with the male on top (illustration 5), and then again with the female on top (illustration 11). We see this in the film, first with Tommy and Izzi in the bath, and the second time when Tommy describes the combination of the two compounds in his research.
The film doesn’t mirror the stages in these images exactly, but we see elements of the process reflected in the story. For example, if Tom and Izzi are seen as two sides of one being, then Izzi’s death represents the nigredo stage. Tom finally breaking down in tears could be the stage of purification that allows the soul to descend back into the body to form the final figure of the hermaphrodite. This could be the future version of Tom, slowly assimilating Izzi as the tree (i.e. soul) by eating pieces of the bark. He’s resurrected as a whole being when he surrenders his ego to death to be reborn in spirit.
In many ways, Izzi is more alive than Tommy, even though she’s dying. She has accepted her fate and lives for the moment – turning up at the lab to take her husband out in the first snow of the season. But Tommy is so obsessed by his work, that he sends her away. He’s determined to stop death and tells himself that he’s doing it to save his wife. But even after her death, he refuses to face reality.
“Death is a disease. It’s like any other. And there’s a cure. And I will find it.”
To Tommy, death is an enemy to be conquered, but he’s trying to do it literally. Izzi has already conquered death by accepting it. She makes the most of the time she has. She’s fearless and awake and at peace.
At the museum, she has a seizure and falls to the ground in a pose reminiscent of Bernini’s sculpture, the Ecstasy of St Teresa – a mystic falling into a swoon. Later in hospital, she explains to Tommy that she’s close to death. He refuses to listen, but she tells him she’s not afraid:
“When I fell, I was full. Held.”
He thinks she’s talking about the fact that he caught her before she hit the floor. But we know she means something else entirely.
When you get close to death, your perception shifts and you start to see through to a larger reality. But you don’t have to die to see reality as it is. Acceptance of death is the road to awe because it allows you to die before you die – something all true mystics say you need to do.
You do this by moving away from duality back towards unity. The duality began in the Garden of Eden with the Tree of Knowledge and the reality of death. But it ends with the Tree of Life and the reality of immortality.
Eternal life is always present underneath the apparent duality of the world and you can return to this truth whenever you like. The price for this truth is the acceptance of death and mortality. Eternal life isn’t for your ego – you don’t get to survive this. As Tomas discovers when he drinks from the tree – life lives through you.
There’s no need to rage against the dying of the light because the light never dies. You die – your small, mortal self dies – but your immortal spirit lives forever.
Eventually, Tom surrenders his selfish desire to conquer death and possess eternal life for himself. The film portrays his awakening in spectacular fashion. In real life, it’s rarely that explosive, although it can feel like being run through with a burning sword. More often, it’s just a quiet sense of acceptance and subtle joy, an intimacy with all of life.
You’re not alone, not isolated, not abandoned, and not forsaken. You’re always and forever in the arms of the beloved.
At the end of the film, Tommy stands at Izzi’s grave and says goodbye. She whispers, “Is everything all right?” and he answers, “Yes…” – perhaps in agreement with the joyous statement by mystic, Julian of Norwich:
“…all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”