What I’ve Been Watching: The Fountain and The Lobster

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Up today: two movies that made me feel more than most movies do.

Film: The Fountain
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Primary Cast: Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, Ellen Burstyn, Sean Patrick Thomas
US Release Date: 22 November 2006

A coworker of mine recently handed me his DVD copy of The Fountain—complete with Blockbuster 2-day rental sticker—and told me to watch it. Though I knew very little about the film, I obliged him, and I’m glad I did. For, despite the movie’s less-than-impressive numbers on sites like metacritic and rotten tomatoes, The Fountain provides a one-of-a-kind viewing experience and is sure to leave a mark on the hearts of those who are open to it. I won’t try to discuss The Fountain “as an Aronofsky film,” because the only other one I’ve seen is Black Swan, but I will say “thank you,” to that coworker who thought I’d enjoy it. And I will also say that for all its flaws, The Fountain is a film that deserves a chance.

Though it appears to consist of three timelines, the film’s plot is not nearly as tangled as it might appear. With The Fountain, Aronofsky presents a fable about love that spans the ages and about death that can’t be stopped. It’s as simple—and as overwhelming—as that. The film’s visuals, it’s decision to tackle the loftiest of subjects, and its particular narrative structure might confuse some, but to pretend that The Fountain is impossibly obscure—or conversely, overblown and silly—when it is not only distracts from how beautiful and moving most of it is.

The Fountain is ambitious, and it’s far from perfect, but it tries, and it accomplishes a great deal along the way. Even if parts of the film have the potential to read as gimmicky and even if the script doesn’t always live up to Aronofsky’s aims, The Fountain remains an affecting and impressive work all the same. Also, for all its excess and ambition, the film is not overlong by any means; by keeping his story moving, Aronofsky increases its potential for impact, and he prevents his viewers from ever growing bored.

If The Fountain is overflowing with excess, it is because Aronofsky feels strongly about the power of the story he is telling. The film’s visuals are stylized and bold. They are filled with deep shadow and bright light. The images aren’t subtle, but they are also meant to transport viewers across centuries’ and galaxies’ worth of ground. The film’s sweeping score is far from modest, but it also helps viewers to experience emotions that are too great for words. The film’s narrative doesn’t follow a straight line, but it also seeks to encompass more than any tale ever could.

It’d be wrong to discuss this film without also mentioning how good Jackman and Weisz are. As Tommy, Jackman gives a moving performance that is better than anything else of his I’ve seen. In The Fountain, he manages to be intensely emotional without becoming so melodramatic that he’s impossible to watch (*cough cough* Les Mis). As Tommy’s wife Izzi, Weisz lights up every frame that she is in, and thanks to her beauty, grace, and skill, viewers should have no trouble understanding Tommy’s love for her.

For what it’s worth, aspects of The Fountain strongly remind me of another 2006 film, Tarsem Singh’s The Fall. The two are very different—especially when it comes to their emotional and philosophical scope—but they also have some important things in common. Both feature gorgeous cinematography and bold, stylized visuals that veer into the realm of fantasy. Both are about love and loss (in their own way). And (perhaps, most importantly) both are interested in the power of stories, and each uses the act of internal storytelling to reveal more about its characters.

The Fountain is a film that it’s almost impossible for me not to like. It features a beautiful, powerful, and haunting score. It’s devastating and visually stunning. It employs a deliberate color scheme which establishes a distinct mood and makes the film even more memorable than it would be otherwise. It is also filled with thoughtful details that reward observant, careful viewership. The movie is flawed, but sometimes magnificently so, and I surely wouldn’t mind owning my own copy of it (Blockbuster sticker or not).

My instincts tell me that those who remember The Fountain will do so more favorably than a number of online reviews might suggest. It is less pretentious than many seem to think, and its high points are more than worth a 96-minute viewing session. Sure, some will continue to hate the film for years to come, but who doesn’t love a little divisiveness with their cinema?

Film: The Lobster
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Primary Cast: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Léa Seydoux, Ariane Labed, Ben Whishaw, John C. Reilly, Angeliki Papoulia, Jessica Barden, Olivia Colman, Ashley Jensen
US Release Date: 13 May 2016

I knew I would like The Lobster before I ever saw it. Or at least, I had a strong feeling that I would. Promo stills for the film were coldly beautiful. The trailer revealed a bizarre premise and hinted at the sort of dark humor I am highly receptive to. The cast included Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, and Léa Seydoux. As I drove to the theater to see the film, my hope was that it would be unique, unsettling, and boldly itself. It proved to be all three and then some, and I left my local AMC pleasantly surprised by Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest work (which also happens to be my first experience with the Greek director).

One of the most impressive (and important) things about The Lobster is just how effective Lanthimos’s world-building is. The universe in which the film takes place is fascinating and original, and Lanthimos immerses viewers and acclimates them to his world’s rules with incredible effectiveness and dexterity. The Lobster doesn’t seem to take place too far into the future and the spaces that its characters navigate doesn’t look too much unlike the present; and yet, it’s almost immediately clear that the world of the film is not our own. Made of The City, The Hotel, and The Woods, the vaguely European setting of The Lobster may look familiar, but it doesn’t feel right. It’s strange, but not so strange that one might call it “fantasy.” It’s almost sci-fi. It’s nearly dystopia . . . Genres and labels aside, The Lobster manages to flirt with the absurd without abandoning a reasonable and believable internal logic. The result is a film that benefits from immense creativity without sacrificing the piercing darkness that comes with intelligent examination of reality.

The Lobster does things differently. It’s odd and offbeat, and it doesn’t worry about dumbing itself down. The script is imaginative, daring, and even terrifying. The visuals are cold, stark, and distinct. The music hits viewers in the face and makes sure that they never forget the strange, dreadful world that they are in. Lanthimos’s characters—even when they appear for only a portion of the film—are also layered and incredibly human. So human, in fact, that they can be hard to watch.

Of course, the strength of the film’s characters is inextricably linked to the abilities of its cast. I’ve enjoyed some of Farrell’s work in the past, but he is at his very best—and most quietly vulnerable—in The Lobster. His character, David, isn’t a particularly outspoken man, and the film’s script (thankfully) doesn’t give him many chances to engage in artificial introspection or to explain his feelings and motivations explicitly. Instead, Lanthimos allows Farrell to bring David to life in a more gentle, subtle, and affecting manner. The rest of the cast do a lovely job as well, and each of them fits seamlessly into the singular world that Lanthimos creates. Other than Farrell, Weisz, Seydoux, Colman, Labed, and Papoulia are particularly memorable, but all of the actors are solid.

The Lobster’s premise centers on love and relationships, but Lanthimos never seeks to comfort his viewers, and there is very little in the film that will warm their hearts. The film is about how people come together and why, and its unconventional take on romance—and the society in which romance takes place—is deeply moving. It is also disturbing and painful. Superficial, rushed, and forced pairings take center stage, and Lanthimos’s approach to such subjects is ruthless and tender all at once. His beautiful, thought-provoking, and upsetting film is also filled with (fantastic) deadpan humor of the blackest hue. Time and time again, The Lobster asks viewers to laugh even as it tears them apart, and the results are glorious.

Like The Fountain (see above), The Lobster sticks to a limited color palette, which impacts its overall feel and tone. Chilly blues, greens, and neutrals dominate most shots, and the consistent use of color helps the world that Lanthimos creates feel even more distinct than his marvelous ideas would on their own.

As much as there is to love about The Lobster, it does have a few flaws worth mentioning. Most notably, the film’s somewhat wandering narrative takes a while to get where it wants to go, and there are moments when it all moves rather slowly. Though it’s not necessarily a bad thing, Lanthimos’s film could be described as “sleepy,” and it may be just a touch too long. While watching the film, I was also occasionally distracted by the volume of the pounding score, which threatened to remove me from the emotions of the moment. Still, these complaints are minor, and they do nothing to change the fact that The Lobster is film worth watching. In fact, it’s just the type of film that demands repeated viewing.

Until Next Time
Thanks for reading!

With just under 2 months until I attempt to move halfway across the country to become a grad student (*panics and dies*), I’ve been scrambling quite a bit lately. Combine this with the fact that it’s easier and more comforting for me to rewatch movies (and television shows) I’ve already seen than it is to seek out new ones means that I haven’t been making it to the movie theater too often. And of course, I haven’t been writing that much either. . . C’est la vie.

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