The Fountain: A Depth Psychology Perspective
The Fountain is a multilayered movie that drives inward into different realms of experiences while telling a story about a man whose journey is ultimately to know himself. In journeying inward, the movie tells this story in three different perspectives which all seem to be occurring at the same time. Though on its surface the film entertains us as one man’s story but if we are able to look deeper through the lenses of depth psychology we find a deeper symbolic message.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky and released in the U.S. in 2006, The Fountain combines elements from magic realism, fantasy, history, and science fiction to tell a story on many levels. On the surface, it is a story about Tomas (played by Hugh Jackman), a surgeon on the brink of finding a cure for his wife, Isabel (Rachel Weisz), who faces a life-threating tumor. At the same time, he is living out a book that Isabel has written, also titled The Fountain. In this story within a story, Tomas is a conquistador in Spain desperately trying to save his queen from destruction by finding the Holy Grail, or fountain of youth. On yet another level, Tomas is traveling through space in a womblike orb as a monk whose destination is a cluster of stars called Xibalba, trying to save the Tree of Life from an untimely demise. In all three stories, Tomas frantically searches to escape his wife’s mortality and, ultimately, his own. He looks to the Tree of Life as a symbol of his hope to achieve his goal (Milchan & Aronofsky, 2006).
The movie presents opposing archetypal forces as Tomas’s efforts to stop his wife’s death are met with actions that continue it forward. The results impose a sense of destiny to death itself. All the while Tomas fights, Isabel continually desires to speak to him about her acceptance of death so that he, too, can come to terms with it. She also asks Tomas to finish her book, which allegorically describes Tomas frantically seeking a way to save her, his queen, and Spain itself from utter destruction. Isabel tells Tomas to finish the book after she has passed so that he can continue his life and come to terms with his own mortality.
The themes and concepts of Jungian depth psychology that we see in The Fountain may explain why this film has evoked such powerful emotional responses in viewers. The images in the movie are deeply encoded with archetypal themes that can serve as a psychological mirror allowing us to see the individuation process that takes place in each of us.
On the most obvious level, the movie addresses themes of loss and death. It reminds us how we all must deal with the suffering within ourselves, and this awareness can lead us to self-discovery (Le Grice, 2006, p. 15). On another level, the movie follows the archetypal narrative that Joseph Campbell coined the Hero’s Journey, in this case with Tomas venturing out on a dark and treacherous journey to reunite his ego with the Self (Henao, 2016).
Setting the Stage
The Fountain tells us from the very beginning that this is a story not to be viewed literally but rather to be experienced. The opening scene’s image we see is a statement, attributed to the Old Testament of the Bible, explaining that when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, a flaming sword was placed in their way to protect the Tree of Life. The quotation, absent from any translation of the Bible, sets up the story’s unique world, implying that this is a personal myth and should be experienced that way.
Cinematically, The Fountain interweaves Spanish religious-mythological symbolism in an almost mandala-like way around the central themes of the movie, the main character’s true goal to reconnect with the Self. The first scene strengthens the archetypal themes through metaphor, showing a man praying to a mandala made of gold, with its center being a container holding a lock of hair that we later learn was taken from the head of the queen of Spain (Jacobi & Manheim, 1974, p. 31). Extending out of the mandala’s center is a corpus cross, which is different than the crucifix by not depicting Jesus being crucified. This piece of religious iconography indicates that what we are about to encounter is not merely a religious experience but one that requires a death, in this case the one surrounding the relationship of Tomas and Isabel, as well as Tomas’s journey to the center, or to the Self.
Hidden in this imagery we can see the process of separation between the womb and ego. The corpus cross extending out of the golden mandala represents the ego, and the lock of hair encased in a transparent glass container at the center represents the womb. Rays of light shine outward from the center, showing the light spectrum as a parallel of the many-faceted features of the unconscious (West, 2015). The choice of the corpus cross rather than the crucifix may also be a foreshadowing of the sacrifice that is needed for the main character to reunite with himself by sacrificing his ego to be born again (Harris, 2013, p. 4). A few moments further into the scene we see the mandala creating a crown around Tomas’s head. This mandala does in fact symbolize his own conscious situation. We see over the course of the film that Tomas is not particularly religious, yet this scene ends with Tomas as the conquistador saying, “Let us finish it,” as he makes the sign of the cross. At this point in the story, what he is crossing is his ego.
Structure and Symbol
It is very challenging to separate the three distinct stories from one another because they are all edited into one another. This creates a sense that all the stories are happening simultaneously, and in fact they are, as each story represents a different level or perspective of the same idea, although the director does not make this intention clear. This structure allows us to explore Tomas’s actualization journey in the concrete and the symbolic (Whitmont, 1991, p. 131). In this sense the movie acts much like a dream, where multiple sets of symbols, from the everyday to the fantastical, can help us to closer define what message these archetypal expressions are conveying (Jung, 1968, p. 149).
The story of Tomas as a surgeon seems to imply the physical experience of his life, the conquistador as the mythological, and the monk as the psychological or spiritual. Though each character is vastly different, they are all ways in which Tomas is on a search – a fight, a crusade, or a mission, so to speak – to overcome death and come to terms with mortality. The tree that appears in all three stories is a symbol of his salvation and signals to us that each of these characters is a representation of the same individual’s journey.
As the main character pursues his goal throughout the movie, there is an opposing force that desires to reunite the character with the Self by coming to terms with death. This force is presented to us as a book called The Fountain, authored by his wife. Through the movie his wife asks him to finish the book, which is written up to the point that the conquistador (Tomas) faces his shadow and comes face to face with the God Image. The compulsive quality of this task – Isabel repeated urges him to finish the book – indicates its archetypal strength (Grice, 2006, p. 29).
Throughout the movie, symbols and character development show us just how separated Tomas is from the Self. At the beginning of the movie we see the mandala and the cross; meanwhile, Tomas sees the world from only a conscious point of view, pushing away the unconscious in every respect. As he is trying to save the queen from the destruction of their enemy, he is willing to sacrifice his life. Additionally, he is willing to kill the enemy (the shadow) to get to a solution. At this point he can only make sense of what he can rationalize and can’t see into the possibilities that extend past him. In this state, he fails in his self-proclaimed mission. The other characters who interact with Tomas in the film can be seen as fragmented personalities that guide him in different directions, sometimes furthering his individuation, sometimes even sabotaging him (Jung, 1928/1968, p. 97).
Modernism versus Nature
Throughout the movie, we see aspects of the modern man desperately fighting to control nature. In the story about the man as a doctor, he is physically trying to overcome death by finding a medical breakthrough. As the conquistador, Tomas must face the ailments of the native jungles of South America to find a hidden city that contains a secret treasure, all while his companions die around him. Additionally, he must fight an overpowering group of native people who are protecting the inner treasure. As a monk, he must face the limitations of time as he slowly watches his companion, the tree, wither and die.
Tomas desperately wants to control nature through acts of will, but he finds that for every action he takes, nature delivers an unexpected result. Tomas must come to terms with his limitations. As a doctor Tomas achieves medical breakthroughs, but they only extend life; they do not shrink his wife’s tumor. As the conquistador, he gains access to hidden knowledge but is killed before it becomes useful to him. As the monk, he learns that the tree he has been desperately trying to keep alive dies due to its natural limitations.
We can also see the mixing of technology and nature in this film’s symbolic imagery. A recurring scene shows surgical devices prodding a monkey’s brain during tests of new medical procedures. Additionally, Tomas as the doctor receives a pen as a gift from Isabel. Rather than using it to write, as she’d intended, he uses it to tattoo a new wedding ring on his finger to replace the one that was now missing. We clearly can see the mixing of metal and skin, a rudimentary technology to document his struggle is created. Tomas is trying to manipulate an aspect of nature that is beyond the reach of his hands, or his conscious level of existence.
Confrontations with Aspects of the Psyche
Even though we don’t know the protagonist’s back story, we can infer that Tomas is a hard-working, well-respected doctor who had been conducting important research well before his wife’s cancer diagnosis. When we meet him, we see a change taking place. His emotions have the better of him, suggesting that he is currently engaged with a complex that is expressing itself through him. Though Tomas is unaware of the change taking place, a resolution will result from this confrontation with shadow, regardless of how dramatic it will be (Jacobi, 1974, p. 18). The most apparent confrontation with his complexes is expressed in dialogue with his wife. It is she, the projected anima, who desires for Tomas to come to terms with the distressing idea of her death (Jung, 1937/1968, p. 314).
In rejecting not only reality of his wife’s impending death but also the idea of his own mortality, he becomes possessed by the complex emotional powers he is unable to confront consciously (Jacobi, 1974, p. 27). Even after his wife’s death, which occurs right before he finds the cure for her disease, he doubles down on his fight against mortality, seeking to eliminate death itself by saving everyone with his cure. Although his actions point to an intention to do good in the world, he has nevertheless turned away from his personal journey; he has failed to realize the Self. He must learn that sacrificing what he sees as important is essential for him to move forward (Whitmont, 1978, p. 88).
An important turning point occurs when Tomas as the doctor is preparing for another test to see if the newest drug will shrink the tumor in the monkey’s brain. Isabel confronts Tomas, inviting him to go outside with her for the first snow, which is a tradition for them. At first, Tomas declines, saying he has too much work, but, realizing his mistake, he runs after her. However, Tomas’s colleague stops him, tells Tomas that the team is ready for surgery and he should continue his work. Tomas returns to his research, ignoring his wife’s wishes.
To me, Tomas’s distraction is again a symbolic representation of his complexes expressing themselves. He has repressed his feelings about death so much that they keep him from doing anything enjoyable with his wife. He is constantly focused on death and how to overcome it, so he remains locked in a battle with the complexes as they express themselves physically and emotionally and he represses them further in his work.
Tomas’s distinct personae as the doctor, the conquistador, and the monk serve the story and the underlying drama of the psyche by protecting his ego. Tomas as a doctor is well respected, even feared, by his staff. Though they see him struggling, his persona is so strong that they are unable to reach him on a personal level; their interactions remain strictly professional. In doing so, he conveys one image of himself while repressing who he is in his shadow (Whitmont, 1978, p. 159). His wife even remarks, in a tone we can easily read as negative, that he is her “conquistador, always conquering.”
This line makes more overt what we can already see as a strong parallel between Tomas as the doctor and Tomas as the conquistador. In the latter role, Tomas is called “Captain,” speaking to his rank and stature as a leader. He stays focused on his task, and others never challenge him. He identifies as the conquistador, who has a mission from God himself to find the answers that will save Spain.
As the monk, our hero’s persona is much different. Tomas hides behind a calm demeanor and the life of a monastic, practicing calming marital arts, speaking softly, and eating very little.
Each of these personas breaks later on in the film as we see him struggle with the task at hand and coming to terms with his inner weakness toward accepting death. In every instance, Tomas breaks down out of fear and suffering, and we see his ego fractured as he becomes desperate to heal (Whitmont, 1978, p. 158). He hides behind these masks, but his true intentions come out when he is confronted with death itself. In each of these stories, he is searching for his own fountain of youth; once he realizes he will never find it, his mask falls off and his true ego is visible. He becomes a man engulfed in the terrible destructiveness of his desire for immortality.
The Watering Hole
The watering hole, as an idiom, refers to the place where animals congregate to drink from the limited supply of fresh water. As in many other films and in life itself, the watering hole is the place to share/gain knowledge and to encounter danger. In The Fountain, the watering hole takes on another form, but the emotional knowledge and encounters are just as life-giving.
In the film, the place of the watering hole is the lab where Tomas and the other doctors are conducting their research. It is where Tomas and his team discuss their successes and failures and where Tomas and his mother figure (Dr. Lillian Guzetti) fight about whether Tomas is spending time on what is most important in life. Just outside of this area is where Tomas washes his hands to prepare for surgery and loses his wedding ring in the symbolic water of life.
Some of the most important lessons in The Fountain are set at this watering hole. The grief that Tomas feels when he loses his ring is apparent and shows us his human side, as well as foreshadowing that his wife will pass away. Underneath his drives toward scientific advancement, he truly cares about only one thing: his connection to his wife and his resistance to losing her. We also see Tomas disregard others by risking their jobs and even the wellbeing of the lab monkey. He denies or fails to notice the irony that in his race to cheat death, he is disrespecting the process of life and death. It is very apparent that Tomas is only thinking about himself, and the dangers that surround the watering hole brings this out of Tomas very clearly.
The role of the anima in each storyline appears as a feminine counterpart to Tomas that urges or even requires him to see his repression and integrate this aspect of himself. In his persona as the doctor, Tomas’s anima is represented by his wife, Isabel, and an older woman who advises him when he loses his ring (a symbol of the anima) while preparing for surgery. As conquistador, his anima is the queen. In this storyline he is unable to marry the queen (the holy mother) while always holding the ring with him as a remembrance until he is able to find the holy grail for Spain (Whitmont, 1978, p. 189). As the monk, his anima is the Tree of Life, and it is progressively dying as Tomas eats of its flesh to keep himself alive until they both can reach the nebula Xibalba, where they will both be reborn.
Each anima continually tries to reconnect to him. His wife desires to spend time and reconnect with him at various points in the film, such as enjoying nature together or falling into a tub of water together. This is representative of falling into the Self (Jung, 1951/1968, p. 200). The older woman (the acting mother in his wife’s absence) who advises Tomas on taking time out of his work to enjoy some last moments with his wife, is the only person who seems to be able to confront him and bring out the emotional truth inside of him (Whitmont, 1978, p. 191). This mother figure calms his nerves and refocuses his priorities. She also elicits from him emotions that are well hidden, acting as a symbolic bridge to Tomas’s unconscious (Jacobi, 1974, p. 98).
The queen desires to marry Tomas, but he is distracted by his mission to stop the unavoidable doom that befalls Spain. The anima as the Tree of Life reaches out to him as he nears but he undoubtedly only looks away at a distant nebula that holds the promise of new vitality to the dying tree.
In each instance we can see that the symbolic representations of his anima are profoundly important to his reconnecting with himself. The more he lives to extend his life, the more that he pushes her away. As he continues to deepen this rift, he ultimately separates himself into two distinct parts, further away from the Self and more into the conscious world where his suffering continues. He becomes weaker physically and emotionally as his complexes show themselves in emotional outbursts and aggressive behavior (Whitmont, 1978, p. 190).
The Wise Old Man
The archetype of the wise old man comes out in numerous forms in this movie. We see him initially as a colleague of Tomas who responds unemotionally to Tomas’s emotional outbursts. He matches Tomas by speaking to him calmly and clearly regardless of how aggressive Tomas gets. He seems to play the rational mind of Tomas. Even Tomas himself at times is able to rationalize his own situation but soon is engulfed by his emotions through complex possession.
The wise old man also appears as a priest who brings the queen and Tomas as the conquistador information about a hidden treasure that could save Spain from its shadow. The priest aids Tomas throughout his search for the hidden treasure – the fountain of youth – until he is killed by those who doubt Tomas (his complexes) leaving Tomas alone but more determined than ever to find the treasure.
We will recall that the film’s opening image tells us that God placed a sword to protect Eden from those who desire eternal life. Later on in Tomas the conquistador’s expedition, he is met by a shaman carrying a flaming sword. We can understand this sword bearer as the representation of how Tomas sees God himself: something to be challenged and overcome. As Tomas approaches the shaman, Tomas lunges forward and is distracted by the flaming sword coming toward him. The shaman cuts Tomas with a knife made of brittle obsidian, which shatters in Tomas’s hand. Tomas looks in disbelief as he realizes that he will not reach his goal. The shaman states, “Death is the road to awe!”
Tomas comes face to face with his shadow in many forms many times in all three stories. The Inquisitor, a menacing male monotheistic figure threatening to destroy all of Spain and the queen by a baptism of blood, represents the repressed aspects of Tomas. Like the Inquisitor, Tomas behaves piously even as he proceeds determinedly toward his treasure. While the queen sees the Inquisitor for who he is, as an aspect of Tomas, the protagonist is unaware that this enemy, a male form of evil seeking to destroy all Tomas holds dear, is a projection of his shadow (Whitmont, 1978, p. 163).
The shadow appears again as the natives that Tomas must face in order to access the threshold that opens up to the Fountain of Youth depicted as a tree. The conquistador’s trusted helpers yell, “Pagans!” to identify the natives as the “other” that should be destroyed (Whitmont, 1978, p. 166). In a later scene, Tomas must pass through the natives in order to reach the threshold into the Self (Whitmont, 1978, p. 160). These personifications of Tomas’s repressed nature are present as he denies his animal side and leans heavily on his persona as a civilized man in charge of his emotions and of nature itself.
Tomas as a doctor faces his shadow time and again as he comes to terms with his wife’s death. She repeatedly asks him to discuss the topic and tells him that she has come to terms with her prognosis, but he is unwilling to face the facts. He is not okay with her or anything that he loves dying. His denial leads him to go to great lengths to eradicate death, albeit without success (Whitmont, 1978, p. 168). His shadow claws inside him to bring forward the fact that he is out of control, helpless, and weak even though he hides it from others as long as he can.
Tomas finally does give in to his anima’s plea to “finish it,” and this ego sacrifice begins his transformation (Whitmont, 1978, p. 199). Looking at the symbolism in the encounter between Tomas and the shaman as this sacrifice unfolds, we see similarities with Jung’s interpretation of the book of Job. Once Tomas asserts his worthiness through this sacrifice, the shaman sees Tomas’s power in his willingness to accept death and challenge God. We see this take form when the shaman cuts Tomas in their final encounter. Rather than killing Tomas with the flaming sword, he sees that Tomas embodies a righteousness and proclaims, “Forgive me First Father, I didn’t know it was you,” and the shaman gives his life in Tomas’s place.
This sacrifice is fitting, as it shows that Tomas has also sacrificed this ego-driven innovations; he has suffered for his wife’s loss and is ready to move on. Tomas learns how his life is bound to patterns and accepts his reality (Slater, 1998, p. 117). Tomas is allowed to pass into the center of the courtyard, where he finds the Tree of Life.
Encountering the Self
Throughout the movie Tomas faces over and over again the moment when Isabel asks him to come out and play with her in the snow. Each time he chooses not to do so, until he decides to finish Isabel’s book. In the film’s climax, Tomas finishes the story as the conquistador encountering the shaman, moving past him, and coming into a center courtyard (the Self). He then uses the sap from the Tree of Life to heal his wound, or reassemble his body. He then drinks of the trees sap and is transformed by nature. The details of this pivotal moment – the cutting and dismemberment of the body, then it’s being reassembled in a new form – closely follow many real shamanistic initiation rituals (Eliade, 1972, p. 34).
As the monk, Tomas merges with the star nebula, which, when it explodes, turns his body into a cross, blowing off his clothes (his persona). Tomas becoming a Christlike figure fits well to the theme that Tomas must take up his own cross in order to transcend and become new, having crucified his past virtues (Whitmont, 1978, p. 256). In this action the Tree of Life becomes alive and blossoms due to Tomas’s sacrifice. This represents the process of Tomas coming to terms with his own mortality, and he is in turn able let Isabel go and live with new meaning.
In this character arc, we find the psychological tasks involved in dis-integration, ego development, and reintegration with the Self. Tomas is in midlife, so he has established his ego and fully disintegrated himself from the womb of the Self. Due to the death of his loved one, he no longer is able to project his anima and shadow onto others and it has begun a great struggle of coming to terms with himself (Whitmont, 1978, p. 283). Through his emotions and fears, we see visually and symbolically how he feels every step of the way, and what it means for him to unite again with the Self, whose goals run contrary to his own. We end the movie in this state as Tomas enters a new phase of life, having had his world shattered but overall having integrated the concept of death; i.e., having drunk from the elixir of life, he has completed the holy marriage (Whitmont, 1978, pp. 97, 260). Unlike Tomas, we can see the psychological transformation or actualization that has taken place unconsciously and that he has incorporated into his life (Whitmont, 1978, pp. 106). Tomas has come to understand that death is no longer an illness that can be cured, but a process of suffering that must be experienced (Whitmont, 1978, pp. 69).
The Film’s Journey
I have presented several examples of symbolic imagery throughout this movie that may or may have not been intended by its director and screenwriters. Regardless of its intended message, these themes have had an impact on many viewers of this film.
When I first saw this film in 2006, I found it to be one of the worst movies I had ever experienced. I walked away from the theater confused and angry to have experienced such an emotional film, but unable to understand the message inside it. Since then I have gone back to watch the movie through new lenses which each time present me with a new meaning, something that I had not experienced before. Over time this film has become one of my favorites because it seems able to transform, or be viewed on different levels, as the viewer changes and grows. To me this movie fits the theme of a mythology because it implies a living story that is personal.
Viewing this film through the lens of depth psychology has once again given this film new life for me. I can see the deeper message that involves all of us. From this perspective, The Fountain becomes about the personal psychological experiences of the writer, the actors, and the viewers, all of whom must one day find that they, too, must come face to face with death and ultimately reunite with the Self. For me this movie is about my personal journey, and as it stays alive inside me it is a reminder of the unconscious that desires to reunite with each of us. As I continue through life I will think of this film and see how the story changes as my life does.
In exploring The Fountain and its symbolic images and themes through the eyes of depth psychology, we can uncover some of its deeper meanings. The film takes us on a journey through one person’s individual experience as he is influenced by archetypal forces of which he is unconscious. Through realizing the purpose of the Self and sacrificing the ego, the main character transforms not only his own life but his relationship to his wife’s passing. These deep learned lessons are explored in a visually stunning and emotionally disturbing multilayered story that we get to watch, but they also extend past the film into our own lives as we struggle with our own mortality. As we continue to learn about our personal ego-Self relationships, the film will continue to take on new meanings for those who continue to watch it over and over again.
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West, M. (2015). Complexes and Archetypes. Retrieved June 4, 2019, from https://www.thesap.org.uk
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Lee Adams is a Ph.D. candidate in Jungian Psychology and Archetypal Studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute and host of Cosmic Echo, a lucid dreaming podcast, and creator of taileaters.com, an online community of lucid dreamers and psychonauts. Lee has been actively researching, practicing, and teaching lucid dreaming for over twenty years.
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