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THE FOUNTAIN – Clint Mansell

November 22, 2006 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Fountain is the latest film from director Darren Aronofsky, whose debut film Pi was a cult success in 1998, and whose 2000 follow up Requiem for a Dream earned massive critical acclaim, as well as an Oscar nomination for actress Ellen Burstyn. The Fountain, in terms of scope, is his most ambitious effort yet. It stars Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz and Ellen Burstyn (again) and is about nothing less than quest for immortality. Jackman stars as pharmaceutical drug developer Tommy Creo, who is desperately trying to save his wife Izzy (Weisz), who is afflicted with an inoperable brain tumour. Izzy is a writer, and has been researching a book about a medieval quest to find the fabled Fountain of Youth, with Queen Isabel (Weisz) sending a Conquistador (Jackman) to New Spain to find it. Intercut with these two stories is a third timeline which takes place in the 26th century, and focuses on a man named Tom (Jackman), who is taking a space trip in the company of a giant tree. Yes, you did read that last sentence correctly.

If it all seems rather cerebral and art-house, you’d be right, because despite its big-name case, impressive budget, and breathtaking special effects, The Fountain remains a defiantly independent, intellectual film concerned with time, life, spirituality, and the essence of being. It’s the kind of film Stanley Kubrick would have attempted at the height of his powers. However, not every aspect of it has been successful. Some unkind critics didn’t ‘get it’ when it played at the Cannes film festival, and burst out laughing at inopportune moments, claiming that the film’s po-faced seriousness was pretentious. Similarly, Clint Mansell’s score tries too hard to be intellectual, and instead comes off as being cold and clinical.

Mansell, who began his career as the front man of the 1980s cult rock band Pop Will Eat Itself, has been Aronofsky’s composer of choice throughout his career. Despite an unexpected (but hugely enjoyable) foray into the world of summer blockbusters with Sahara in 2005, Mansell has remained firmly on the fringes of the Hollywood mainstream, scoring films like Murder By Numbers and Abandon. In The Fountain, he’s desperately trying to sound like Michael Nyman, or Philip Glass, even going as far as hiring the Kronos Quartet and Scottish rock band Mogwai to perform his score. And, like Nyman and Glass, while almost technically flawless and containing some lovely moments, Mansell’s music has virtually no warmth, and very little emotion.

The approach generally consists of two aspects: repetitive piano chords and morose melodies overlaid by the string quartet and an occasional choir, and loud and grating pseudo-rock tracks with electric guitars and drum machines sitting alongside the orchestra. It’s an odd juxtaposition, to be sure, and might have worked if the transitions between the two were a little smoother and a little less jarring, but sadly this is not the case.

The best cues are the ones which concentrate on the intimate performances of the Kronos Quartet, such as the opening “The Last Man”, and the solo piano, such as in the beautiful conclusion “Together We Will Love Forever”. By far the best cue is the expressive “Xibalba”, which features an undulating, fluttering violin element paired with a sampled male voice choir and metronomic synth pulse which has a magnetic, tantalisingly captivating quality that’s hard to describe. Similarly, the rhythmic pair “First Snow” and “Finish It” rise and fall seductively with grace and elegance, combining acoustic and synthetic instruments in an appealing synergy, although the latter does conclude with a rather disturbing gurgling effect which sounds like something solid disappearing down a plug hole.

The main three-note motif, as heard in “The Last Man”, “First Snow” and the extended “Death is the Road to Awe” is slightly reminiscent of one of the themes in Mychael Danna’s Ride With the Devil, albeit significantly deconstructed, but it just seems so devoid of any kind of human element I find it difficult to connect with on any deeper level. This isn’t to say that music is unattractive, because it isn’t. It has a certain hypnotic, dream-like quality, which I’m sure is exactly the effect Aronofsky wanted the music to have. It’s just the coldness, the general sterility, and the sense of remoteness and distance makes it a hard score to like. I feel the same way about this score as I do about Nyman’s Gattaca or Glass’s Kundun: well written, superbly performed, but impossible to warm to.

However, these cues are significantly superior to parts of “Holy Dread” and “Tree of Life”, which come across as a cacophonous collision of sound and style which would be quite intriguing if it wasn’t so damn difficult to listen to. Stuart Braithwaite and Dominic Aitchison, the leaders of Mogwai, add layer upon layer of electronic dissonances, pulses and sound effects on top of Mansell’s undulating string writing, giving them texture and depth, but ultimately they become so overbearing that you can’t bear to listen to them anymore. In the end, it’s like listening to a car alarm for four minutes. The sound is so incessant you just want to shut the damn thing off.

It could be that I just don’t “get” The Fountain, or what Mansell was trying to achieve by creating this kind of musical collage, as I have read numerous comments and quotes online saying how brilliant and challenging and amazing this score is. It could be that I would have been one of those laughing journalists in Cannes, not fully understanding what The Fountain was all about. Whatever the case, I found The Fountain to be a desperately frustrating work. Cues like “Xibalba”, “First Snow” and “Death is the Road to Awe” are great, and had the rest of the album been of a similar standard I would have been inclined to give it a better rating. I can still see a small section of the film music community absolutely loving every second of it. As it is, though, and taking into account all the unpalatable harshness elsewhere on the album, I personally doubt whether I will be immersing myself in the waters of this fountain regularly.

Rating: **½

Track Listing:

  • The Last Man (6:09)
  • Holy Dread! (3:51)
  • Tree of Life (3:44)
  • Stay With Me (3:36)
  • Death is a Disease (2:34)
  • Xibalba (5:22)
  • First Snow (3:08)
  • Finish It (4:25)
  • Death is the Road to Awe (8:25)
  • Together We Will Live Forever (5:01)

Running Time: 46 minutes 20 seconds

Nonesuch 79901 (2006)

Music composed by Clint Mansell. Performed by Clint Mansell, The Kronos Quartet and Mogwai. Orchestrated Justin Skomarovsky. Additional music by Stuart Braithwaite and Dominic Aitchison. Edited by Nic Ratner. Album produced by Clint Mansell.

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