Best known for directing commercials and music videos (‘Losing My Religion’ for R.E.M. is perhaps his most famous effort), director Tarsem Singh (just Tarsem to you and me) applies his photographer’s eye and considerable imagination to his latest project, “The Fall.” A film of audacious visual exuberance, “The Fall” is that rare thing: a film that exists solely to be looked at. No, I don’t mean one of those sfx extravaganzas that can only hope to be pretty because their narratives are so hopelessly underdone. This film’s raison d’être is to be pretty, and the narrative exists solely to give it motion.
The film opens with a deliberately interminable slow-motion sequence that turns out to be the aftermath of a failed movie stunt that leaves stuntman Roy (played by Lee Pace, who’s a dead ringer for John Cusack in both looks and mannerisms) an apparent paraplegic and bedridden at a California hospital. One day he meets a 5 year old fellow patient named Alexandria (newcomer Catinca Untaru), an Eastern European gypsy child who works as a migrant laborer on an orange orchard, who’s got her arm in a cast after falling out of a tree. The two get to talking and Roy starts to tell her a grand adventure story involving The Black Bandit, Luigi the explosives expert, The Indian, the Ex-slave and Charles Darwin and his monkey Wallace.
The adventurers have been stranded on a desert island by the evil Governor Odious, whom all have sworn to kill for various reasons. Roy’s words are translated into the images we see through Alexandria’s overactive imagination. She obviously doesn’t fully understand, so the story Roy is telling and what we are seeing are not necessarily the same thing. We’re tipped off to this by the character of The Indian. As Roy tells it, The Indian would not look at another squaw till he killed Governor Odious, obviously referring to a Native American. However, Alexandria’s version is a real Indian. Since one of the other workers at the orchard is from India, that’s the only visual reference for ‘Indian’ that she knows. But all this is not as innocent as it seems as we eventually come to realize that Roy’s storytelling is not for their mutual amusement; rather Roy has more sinister intentions for the oblivious Alexandria.
The movie is wonderful to look at, with startling images and vibrant colors that would look perfectly at home as the backdrop for a moodily pretentious perfume advertisement. Fortunately, they are not as dense and obtuse as Tarsem’s previous big screen effort, “The Cell.” The complexity comes from merging together the simplicity of the individual images. From the swimming elephant that effects the adventurers’ escape from the desert island to the dreadlocked mystic who bursts forth from a flaming tree to the desert city painted vibrant cobalt blue, the film keeps hitting you with stunner after stunner, taunting your visual cortex as you try to keep up with the onslaught. Another neat aspect to the film is how the story sequences are presented with intentionally stilted acting, as if the actors are reading their lines off of queue cards. However, upon closer examination, one realizes that the film takes place in the early 1920s, when silent movies were becoming mainstream entertainment. Thus, the style in which the story would be imagined by Alexandria would be the style she would be most familiar with. These sorts of detail nuggets are strewn throughout the film and are something the sharp-eyed viewer can really appreciate.
A true work of passion, Tarsem reportedly cobbled the film together over the period of four years, filming segments in 18 countries in his spare time while working his day job making commercials and music videos. The finished product puts paid to that passion, marrying glorious images with jaw-dropping stylistic flourishes to compose a visually hedonistic collage. The fact that the film’s disjointed gestation doesn’t make itself apparent on the screen is a testament to Tarsem’s skills.
Judged on standard movie conventions, “The Fall” is ultimately rather empty and unfocused, the narrative meandering quite a bit and the ending being fairly drawn out, but the gorgeous visuals are enough to make it worth seeing. Don’t think of it as a movie, but rather as art in motion. The material is not as repugnant as “The Cell,” which should give the film broader appeal, and the childish innocence with which Tarsem treats Alexandria’s character is a nuanced contrast to the otherwise grim proceedings. Given its general weirdness and abstract presentation, “The Fall” is guaranteed to go unnoticed in the US Box Office, but more seasoned film aficionados and visualists ought to check it out because this is the sort of film that doesn’t get made very often.
Tarsem Singh (director) / Dan Gilroy, Nico Soultanakis, Tarsem Singh (screenplay)
CAST: Catinca Untaru … Alexandria
Justine Waddell … Nurse Evelyn / Sister Evelyn
Lee Pace … Roy Walker
Kim Uylenbroek … Doctor / Alexander the Great
Aiden Lithgow … Alexander’s Messenger
Sean Gilder … Walt Purdy
Ronald France … Otto