As writer-director Tarsem Singh (these days, just "Tarsem") explains it, he first had the idea for The Fall 14 years ago, but was unable to secure funding for a dark, miserablist fantasy shot in more than a dozen countries, based on a Bulgarian drama (1981's Yo Ho Ho), and largely written by the improvisational choices of a 5-year-old girl. And no wonder. The Fall ranks up there with the collected directorial works of Crispin Glover as an impossible-to-sell act of creative love and insane genius; Tarsem wound up financing it himself, piggybacking his shoots on his commercial-directing work around the world. But for such a homemade project, it's a staggeringly polished and beautiful one, heavily informed by Tarsem's work in commercials and music videos. (He's best known for R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion.") It resembles Cirque Du Soleil's Journey Of Man, another vividly colored fantasia that drew on some of the world's most beautiful backgrounds for color. But story-wise, it's a little more like the black-sheep brother of The Princess Bride.
Pushing Daisies' Lee Pace stars as a depressed film stuntman with a broken back. Confined to a hospital and mooning over the woman who left him for the film's leading man, he pretends to befriend a Romanian child (5-year-old Catinca Untaru) who's also recuperating in the hospital after a fall. Making up an elaborate fairy tale for her, incorporating personnel from the hospital and situations from his own lovelorn life, he earns her trust, then refuses to continue the story until she steals him some pills, so he can kill himself. As the plot develops, the story he tells her reflects and winds into their real-life situation, and Tarsem brings Pace's fable to vivid life onscreen.
The Fall has its flaws: Untaru's sequences are largely improvised, and while she's adorable and strikingly naturalistic, Tarsem's process for building her story leads to long, wandering, repetitive scenes between her and Pace. And the entire film, with its multi-country collection of vivid locales, its high-toned compositions, and its unrepentant melodrama, is pretentious to the point of laughability. And yet the structure is so delicate, the ideas are so ambitious, and the imagery is so hellishly flamboyant that it's easy to fall into Tarsem's over-the-top vision. His only previous feature film, The Cell, was all style and no substance. The Fall crams in both to a staggering degree. It's the most glorious, wonderful mess put onscreen since Terry Gilliam's Brazil.