Before 'Black Swan': Darren Aronofsky's Critical Flop

As the director's newest offering keeps us talking, it's worth watching his strikingly original 2006 film, "The Fountain"

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Warner Bros

The buzz on the batty thriller Black Swan hasn't subsided much since its release early last month. Star Natalie Portman has become the presumptive frontrunner in just about every best-actress race, with discussion at this point less concerned with the actual merits of her performance than whether the forthcoming sex comedy No Strings Attached will be her "Norbit"—a reference to the disreputable Eddie Murphy comedy that some suspect spoiled the actor's chances at an Oscar for Dreamgirls.

Critics continue to argue about Black Swan, as well. Filing right before the new year, The New York Times' A.O. Scott declared it "a leading candidate for the most misunderstood film of 2010," while Dennis Lim, writing in Slate, wrote that it represented "one more dubious milestone in the mainstreaming of camp." Audiences have also been divided over whether director Darren Aronofsky's film is serious or funny, and whether it "giv[es] flesh to wild metaphors of female sexuality and aesthetic risk" (Scott) or merely puts "camp itself in quotation marks" (Lim).

With all this multiplex controversy brewing, what better time to revisit Aronofsky's misbegotten grief bliss-out The Fountain? The movie—which played earlier this week in a mini-retrospective at Lincoln Center (Black Swan's setting!), and is also currently available to "watch instantly" on Netflix—is the only significant critical failure in the director's corpus, though he's weathered a drumbeat of style-over-substance charges since his low-budget debut, Pi.

Five years after its release, The Fountain remains both admirably ambitious and hugely (unintentionally) funny. (For a good portion of the movie a futuristically bald Hugh Jackman tends to a dying tree—in space; the movie's deadly serious present-day sections feature brain surgeries performed on a monkey named Donovan.) But over time The Fountain's sincerity has also become a bit more disarming—especially in light of the proudly derivative Black Swan, the frigid schlock of which suggests the filmmaker is still smarting from the tepid reception of his most nakedly personal work.

The Fountain, at 96 minutes a fleet journey, cuts clumsily among a conquistador questing after the Tree of Life, a present-day cancer-cure researcher facing the loss of his wife (Rachel Weisz) from said disease, and a pajama-wearing martial artist hurtling through the universe in some sort of oversized bubble of a spaceship. The movie's three Jackman characters—the conquistador, the scientist, and the space traveler—are each involved in separate monomaniacal searches for sources of eternal youth.

The Fountain's production history, tracked religiously by Ain't It Cool News and similar movie-rumor sites, might at least partially explain why the movie feels so malformed. The film was originally set to star Brad Pitt, at a reported budget of $70 million. But the actor bailed in 2002, weeks before shooting was scheduled to start, making him for a time a fanboy persona non grata. Production was shut down. Aronofsky eventually returned to the project, but with a drastically reduced budget.

The film, in retrospect, seems to be Aronofsky's attempt to elevate the overriding theme of his oeuvre—the degradation of the body, or the overwhelming fear of it—out of the gutter realm of junkies (Requiem for a Dream) and PED users (The Wrestler) and into the lofty plane of cosmic mythology. But the The Fountain's general bombast feels out of keeping with its schematic, sketchy story—betraying more than any other piece of Aronofsky shock-theater the flimsiness, the self-evidence, of the director's chosen theme.

And while his fundamental prison-of-the-body concern hasn't changed, Aronofsky still appears to be in a post-Fountain creative retreat. He has made two films since. Before Black Swan came that other awards-season hit, The Wrestler, a bit of strained realism that also chronicled manifold insults to the body of its athlete-performer protagonist, an over-the-hill grappler played by Mickey Rourke. By frequently training his camera on the back of the head of his lead actor (claustrophobic "follow" shots cribbed from the Belgian filmmakers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne), Aronofsky seemed to signal that he was also humbly working at ground level toward his own career resurrection.

The Wrestler finds the director dutifully going through the male-weepie motions, but his attention sporadically seems to wander, as evidenced by his distracted, and distracting, fetishization of outmoded technologies (VHS, NES). Black Swan likewise feels thoroughly unoriginal, but Aronofsky solves his attention-deficit problem by throwing in as many influences as possible (The Fly, Repulsion, Persona, etc.). Whatever the case, the recycled frenzy of Black Swan is enough to make you wish Aronofsky had another legitimately go-for-broke Fountain in him.