May 24 2009 11:51am

The Fall

When I saw The Cell many years ago, I admired the director’s vision, but in terms of acting, plot, dialogue—anything other than visuals—it fell flat. I hoped that some day Tarsem Singh would get his hands on a good script and a more talented cast.

The Fall is that and more. The story, while uncomplicated, is solid. The acting, especially in the interaction of the two leads, can be charming and heartbreaking, often at once. And visually? It’s one of the most beautiful movies I have ever seen. The Cell is nothing in comparison.

I could go on and on about how spectacular and lush and arresting it is, but I’d do it no justice. Suffice it to say that if Parrish, Alma-Tadema and Beethoven teamed up with Jean-Pierre Jeunet, The Fall is the sort of movie they’d make. The closest films I can compare it to are The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Pan’s Labyrinth. If you ask me—well, I wrote the review so I guess I asked myself—The Fall surpasses them easily.

Even though I’ve seen it five times now, I still hesitate to define it outright as a fantasy, though there are certainly fantastical sequences. Were I to say that it’s not a fantasy, but rather a drama interwoven with an imaginary second narrative, that wouldn’t describe it either. The portrayal of daily life contains a carnival of magical imagery, while in the most fantastical sequences the deepest real-world emotions are expressed. The fantasy and reality are not separate.

The plot comes from Bulgarian children’s adventure film Yo Ho Ho, in which a young boy recovering from a broken arm befriends an old man in a hospital and together they imagine wild things. Set in 1920s Los Angeles, The Fall focuses on a young migrant laborer named Alexandria and her friend, a recently paralyzed stunt man named Roy Walker (a pretty ironic last name, I’d say).  Many of the cast and crew, including first-time actress Catinca Untaru, believed during filming that the actor who played Roy (the entirely charming Lee Pace of Pushing Daisies) was paralyzed in real life. Much of Catinca’s dialogue with Lee was adlibbed, giving their interactions a feeling of authenticity she might not have otherwise been able to pull off as an inexperienced actress.

In the commentary, screenwriter Dan Gilroy frequently refers to The Fall as a love story. It’s true: adult Roy and child Alexandria clearly love each other, and in a non-icky way. That alone is a rarity in films. Usually when a little girl loves an older man she isn't related to, it’s creepy as hell. Not that this movie is all sweetness, mind you. Roy, out of a suicidal depression following his accident, manipulates Alexandria into getting him drugs. But even at his most unsavory, it’s clear he genuinely cares for her.

The title refers to several falls: the stunt gone wrong that lands Roy in the hospital; Alexandria’s falls (one that broke her arm and a second in which she was injured trying to find morphine for Roy); and perhaps most of all, Roy’s fall into despair. The bulk of the real-world plot revolves around the friendship between Alexandria and Roy, Alexandria’s terrifying discoveries in the hospital and Roy’s duplicity. Interspersed with all this is the story of the Blue Bandit, who travels with a mysterious crew (an Indian, an escaped African slave, a demolitions expert and Charles Darwin) to seek revenge on the evil Governor Odious and capture the heart of Odious’s beautiful betrothed.

Throughout the film, there are moments when I thought for sure the plot was about to seriously go south to Suckville, but that never happens. It just occasionally scared the crap out of me instead, which is OK. Ultimately, the story is about the triumph of hope and love over the desire to give up and give in to despondency.

The Fall made $3 million in the box office, which must be micro-peanuts compared to the budget. Filmed in South Africa, all over India, Sumatra, the Andaman Islands, Czech Republic, Namibia, Fiji and a few other places, it must have been horrendously expensive. So go get the DVD! Get Tarsem out of debt. If we’re lucky, the movie he’s currently working on will actually get made, but you can never be sure with the really expensive visionary types. But even if he never makes another film, he has created a masterpiece in this one.

Oscar Baechler
1. Oscar Baechler
Agreed, but just like with "The Cell," I can't give him full credit, because he once again makes it dynamic by copying other peoples' visions.

Does this look familiar?

He took a lot of the better stuff in The Cell from other dudes, such as Damien Hirst, which is where the split-up horse comes from.

On the other hand, as Jim Jarmusch says, steal from everywhere! And these were both certainly beautiful movies, so I guess the ends justify the means.
Oscar Baechler
2. quiet trickster
I've been gushing about The Fall since I saw it at the Edinburgh film festival last year. It walks such a knife edge - like you I was concerned that it might just collapse under its own weight. But Catinca Untaru is startlingly good.

It's particularly refreshing to see a fantasy film that doesn't rely on CG for its spectacle - I feel like every art director should watch it, just so they realise there are more fantastical real locations than anything they can invent :)

Apparently Tarsem managed to get to all the exotic locations by directing commercials across the globe and just whisking his actors out for a few days of filming at the same time.
Jason Henninger
3. jasonhenninger

I was unfamiliar with Hirst when I saw The Cell, but when I saw that shark in a tank thing he did, I immediately thought of the Cell. And Tarsem borrowed from Barraca, no doubt. And from Ashes and Snow.

I'm with ya on the CGI thing. I was very happy to learn that Spike Jonez (who was one of The Fall's producers) wouldn't be relying on CGI for Where the Wild Things Are. I'm glad. CGI is a great tool, but shouldn't be the sole source of special effects. I think it's hampered creativity through overuse.
Oscar Baechler
4. Nick Mamatas
One of the best movies I've seen in years. The Red Vic in SF must have retained a print, as they show it for a couple of days every few months. I recommend the big screen for it, definitely.
Eugene Myers
5. ecmyers
Great review, Jason. This is a gorgeous and rich film. I've only seen it once (lured in by my appreciation of Lee Pace), but I'm going to buy the DVD because I know I'll watch it again and again. I was completely won over by that little girl and the sweet relationship she develops with Roy.
Rajan Khanna
6. rajanyk
I agree with everything that's been said. I saw it for the first time a couple of months ago and it's one of the best movies I've seen in a long time. Like Eugene, I need to buy it, too, because I can see myself watching it often. And having the little girl react naturally was a great decision. After disturbingly saccharine Hollywood child actors, she was a welcome change and went a long way toward making the movie so great.
Dot Lin
7. fangirl
i loved this movie! especially that little girl: "Keess, keess? Can they keess now?"
Oscar Baechler
8. Ardith
I totally agree. This movie is amazing. I received it as a gift on blu-ray for my birthday and have watched it a half dozen times at least.

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