Alexandria: “Why are you killing everybody? Why are you making everybody die?”
Roy: “It’s my story.”
Alexandria: “Mine, too.” —The Fall
Tarsem’s The Fall is one of those movies that inspire modified praise, even from its most fervent champions—phrases like “flawed masterpiece,” “magnificent folly,” and from A.V. Club superfan Tasha Robinson, “the most glorious, wonderful mess put onscreen since Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.” One’s mileage for glorious messes tends to vary—the “mess” part is all Tasha and I can agree on with Gilliam’s recent The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus—but there’s great appeal in a filmmaker who commits to an ambitious, splashy, personal vision, however awkward and foolhardy it might be. I don’t doubt that everyone who watches The Fall recognizes both its folly and its magnificence, but it’s fascinating and telling (and personal) how individual viewers wind up balancing that equation in the end. It’s one of those strange cases where two people can agree point by point on everything that does and doesn’t work in a movie, yet come to opposite conclusions about it.
I first laid eyes on The Fall at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival, where it was already playing the role of cinematic orphan, looking for some kind soul to take it in. (That didn’t happen until nearly two years later, when David Fincher and Spike Jonze, two directors with similar commercial and music-video backgrounds, attached their names to it and helped earn it a limited release.) In spite of its conspicuously low profile at the festival, I wrote at the time that I “[didn’t] expect it to remain unknown for long,” and though I was wrong about the amount of time The Fall would be stuck in limbo, it has since attracted its share of fervent admirers. My own ambivalence about the film hasn’t changed much, even on second viewing, but there’s undeniable nerve and flamboyance in what Tarsem attempts here, and a disarming earnestness to the way he breaks down the way stories are told and processed.
Shot over four years in at least 18 different countries—India and South Africa were the primary locales, but the film globetrots to some staggeringly beautiful places in Bolivia, Indonesia, and the Himalayas, though the exact count of locales varies in the telling—The Fall was financed largely by the director himself, who’s better established as an auteur in the commercial world than in Hollywood. His lush, super-saturated visual style (and yes, weakness for pretentious imagery) was on full display in his breakthrough video for R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” and in the goofy Jennifer Lopez vehicle The Cell, which explored the topography of a serial killer’s mind. (He also, subsequent to The Fall, directed a major gladiator-themed Pepsi spot starring Beyoncé, Pink, and Britney Spears, set to “We Will Rock You.”) As I’ll get into later, there are reasons to question the substance of Tarsem’s work: Is he really invested in the story, characters, and themes, or are they just a platform for arresting images? Then again, when you witness sequences like The Fall’s opening credits, such questions seem totally irrelevant:
As gorgeous as that sequence is, it also demonstrates one of the major problems with The Fall: Amid all the visual poetry, it can be hard to discern precisely what’s going on. Much of that is by design—this is a movie, after all, about the nature of storytelling, and it tells a story made up as it goes along—but I came away from the sequence with a strong impression of Tarsem’s cinematic style, and only the most oblique sense of what those images are supposed to represent. And when Tarsem does fill in the details, it arrives through stilted exchanges between a paralyzed stuntman and a little girl who are convalescing together in a Los Angeles hospital in 1915. In other words, his gift for visuals doesn’t always translate into a gift for visual storytelling; too much is conveyed through the grinding interplay between two characters huddled around a hospital bed. If you were to compare The Fall to The Princess Bride, as many have, imagine The Princess Bride if more than half the movie were devoted to the back-and-forth between Peter Falk and his grandson. Wouldn’t be as exciting, would it?
Admittedly, I’m being a little unfair here. There’s no subtext to Peter Falk telling a story to his grandson in The Princess Bride; he just wants to help a sick kid get through the day. In contrast, the relationship between Roy (Pushing Daisies’ Lee Pace), a stuntman beset by physical and emotional anguish, and Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), the 5-year-old who eagerly listens to his tall tale, has a few twists and turns. Bedridden after a terrible accident and still reeling from his crush object leaving him for the film’s leading man, Roy channels his despair into a fantastical story of cruelty and revenge, using real figures from his life and his hospital surroundings as analogs for fictional ones.
The story-within-a-story that holds Alexandria so rapt concerns six men—including an explosions expert, a runaway slave, Charles Darwin (and his monkey), and a masked bandit, also played by Pace—united in their quest to kill the diabolical Governor Odious for various reasons. Though Odious is tagged as Spanish, the journey unfolds across landscapes and architecture far more diverse than any one country could hold, which is one of the film’s great strengths—fantasies, by nature, invite the kind of colorful abstraction that Tarsem excels at producing. As the story darkens and the quest starts to stall, Roy’s true motivation for engaging with Alexandria is revealed: He wants her to steal enough morphine from the dispensary to end his life. And naturally, that has an impact in how the tale ultimately unfolds.
Many of my frustrations with The Fall are embedded in the story. But the same elements that frustrate me also give the film whatever depth it has: Because Roy needs the girl to get the pills, he essentially holds the story hostage and deliberately frustrates her desire to have it resolved, much less the way she wants it to be. But since the fantasy world is so much more compelling than the awkward scenes at the hospital, the viewer—or at least this one—feels Alexandria’s frustration all too well. (It doesn’t help that while the 6-year-old Untaru, a non-actress from Romania, has some wonderful moments, she’s virtually unintelligible at times.) The six-person revenge plot could not be simpler, but it’s made to seem as confounding and irresolvable as the “Labyrinth Of Despair” that claims at least a few lives over the course of the film. At the same time, there’s something authentically beautiful about the idea, expressed in the exchange I quote in the header, that the listener (or reader or viewer, depending on the medium) has a stake in where a story goes. This may seem like an obvious point, but Tarsem makes it the stuff of tragedy; in this heartbreaking sequence, fantasy and reality converge as Roy’s narrative deteriorates before the girl’s eyes:
It’s a sad irony of The Fall that a movie about storytelling—and one this passionate and intermittently visionary—could be undone at times by hiccups in its own unfolding. Yet no one could accuse it of being a mediocrity; if it’s going to fail, Tarsem has the courage to make certain that it fails big. Though he hasn’t figured out how to reconcile his unmistakable commercial polish with the cohesion and attention to performance required for a feature, he can’t be accused of bland proficiency. When The Fall really comes to life, as it does in the opening credits, or the powerful montage of silent-movie stunts, it reaches the transcendence that has led many to rally around it. In her original review, Tasha called the story-building process “long, wandering, [and] repetitive,” and called the film “pretentious to the point of laughability.” It’s also one of her favorite movies of the decade. It says something that those positions aren’t as contradictory as they seem.
The Newest Cult Canon Month continues…
Next week: Synecdoche, New York
February 25: The House Of The Devil
Back to business:
March 4: Serenity