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Dearest dahlinks, Let Me Tell You a Story; a tale of exotic lands, beautiful maidens, bold heroes and devious villainy. Better yet, allow yourself to have that story told by Tarsem, director of such visual delights as REM’s Losing My Religion video and the surrealist fantasy, The Cell. The Indian artist weaves a magical bedtime tale with his latest effort, The Fall, and crafts one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen.

The Fall opens with a series of grainy black and white slow-motion frames of workmen straining over a bridge to pull a drowned horse from a river; the haunting textural images and layered score making the sadness of the act somehow epic and monumental. The scene sets our expectations for what we are about to see as the story gets underway. In sunniest California in the early part of the 20th century, a round-cheeked, bright-eyed cherub of a little girl called Alexandria makes her rounds exploring a hospital campus with a clipped wing. The brace supporting her broken arm juts out at an uncomfortable angle, but she pays no mind.  On one such jaunt Alexandria comes across the supine figure of Roy, a Hollywood stuntman suffering from a broken back. A ruptured vertebra isn’t the only thing the young man ails from as we discover his injury originated in a failed attempt to win back a fading lover with a deadly leap off a bridge on horseback. With the blunt curiosity lost to anyone over the age of 10, Alexandria questions Roy about his injury. Roy deflects by tempting Alexandria with a different prize, spinning an epic tale of stolen princesses, evil potentates and a hardscrabble tribe of brave champions from around the globe. As the story grows, Alexandria’s involvement with both the tale and the teller deepens and many of the characters take after the people who surround the little girl in her real life, just as the direction of the story reflects the changes in Roy’s world. Alexandria soon becomes so enrapt by Roy’s cliffhanger that he is able to coax the unwitting girl to sneak around the hospital and steal the morphine he intends to use to end it all.

Breathtaking, absolutely breathtaking is the level of pure artistry in this film. What Tarsem has done in his narration as well as in his visuals is give us grown-ups one of the truest views of life through a child’s eyes. We revisit the wonder of the world as it looked to us at the ripe old age of five {“I’m not a little girl, I’m five!” Alexandria scolds Roy}, as well as suffering some of the phantasmagoric nightmares and fears so terrifying at that age.

The spectacular, dreamlike images of The Fall I would have never imagined as being possible to capture outside of an animated feature. The influence of many classic artists are displayed onscreen, Dali, Picasso, Magritte and Bosch to name a few obvious examples, while Tarsem’s own distinct aesthetics are given full reign. Some glorious moments are the underwater shot of an elephant swimming in slow motion in a cerulean sea. The landscapes of saffron deserts meeting cobalt blue skies; the spinning chandelier made of tied-together skinned rebels who attempt to over throw the evil Governor Odious rising up into the palace ceiling; the white-robed whirling dervishes who bear witness to the wedding of the crystal-clad princess. In a page out of Escher, the band of heroes has to find their way through an interminable maze of stairs, each seeming to lead endlessly into the next. The band of good guys are a wonderful mix of characters, each with their unique style and look courtesy of another brilliant artist, the great costumer Eiko Ishioka. Luigi, the explosions expert is decked in bright reds and yellows to match the flames emblazoned on his long coat. The noble Indian whose squaw was kidnapped by Odious is of the Asian variety in majestic jewel-coloured satin. The African slave with his helmet of towering gazelle horns resembles more a regal ebony sculpture than a flesh and blood man, and even Charles Darwin makes an appearance, dwarfed by a huge, fluffy faux-fur Vivienne Westwood-influenced white jacket that looks at though the Union Jack was spray painted on it. The main hero and the avatar of Roy himself, The Black Bandit wears a bolero-ish outfit that’s equal parts Zorro and Adam Ant. Our Damsel-in-Distress, Princess Evelyn’s lavish, beautiful outfits that take their cue from Japanese kimono, Erte, Marlene Dietrich’s Scarlet Empress uniforms and Cate Blanchett’s 1999 Oscar’s gown by Galliano.

The locations are themselves another star of the picture; filmed in over 24 countries Tarsem takes familiar ground, Venice, Paris, the Taj Majal and manages to present those cities as well as African deserts and India’s marshes in new and innovative ways. 

For all its eye-popping beauty, The Fall’s real special effect is in the casting of then five-year-old Catinca Untaru as Alexandria. In one of the freshest, truest performances by a child actor, Untaru grabs the audience with her huge, ice-blue eyes and her adorable gap toothed grin – Tarsem uses her missing front teeth as part of the storyline. Her utterly natural presence is never measured or self-conscious, so much so one wonders if she was actually learning lines at all. Her accented English only increases her charm and she is the perfect representation of not only being a child that age, but what it meant to be a child that age.

Her chemistry with Lee Pace as the tortured Roy is unforgettable. It’s obvious the two adored each other. Pace once again (after his recent turn in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day - click here for that review) proves why he’s deservedly one of the rising stars in Hollywood. Not only is he as handsome as the matinee idols of the 30’s and 40’s, a la Cary Grant or Gary Cooper, he’s also got the strong, steady presence of those MGM Studio ancestors. He captures the depression and heartbreak of a young vital man who may never walk again, who gave everything away for the faithless love of an unworthy woman.  The sensitivity Pace shows in scenes where there clearly had to be some adlibbing between him and his young costar is remarkable and really holds the emotion of the film.

Any complaint I had about The Fall (- besides being perhaps ten minutes too long) would stem from the relationship between Roy and Alexandria, after Roy betrays her trust and makes a little girl an inadvertent accessory to his suicide. In her quest to steal morphine pills for Roy, Alexandria falls from the stockroom shelves and is seriously injured (- In a frightening nightmare sequence, stop-motion puppet ghouls literally pull Alexandria’s brain apart before packing it back together and pinning her to an operating gurney like a butterfly – a repeated motif through the film). Feeling guilty for his part in her pain, Roy continues the story for the little girl, inexplicably turning it rancid with death and heartache. He destroys the entire world he built with Alexandria and tortures her in the telling. He felt he needed to make her hate him, but there was no way that Alexandria, who professed never wanting to leave the hospital so she could stay with Roy, would ever have turned against him. Making her visualise the painful end chapter Roy creates just smacked of unnecessary torture for the ailing child who’d been through so much. It called a jarring and dissonant halt to a film that moved so fluidly up until then.

Time passes beyond the incident and Roy presents his own world of fairy tales and make-believe to Alexandria and screens one of his silent films for the children in the hospital. Tarsem’s last-scene montage tribute to the unsung heroes of silent film era stunt work is only a small signal of how personal The Fall is to him. Self-financed, Tarsem took four years to make the movie he wanted to create without compromises. It’s rare to see such an unfiltered personal vision become a blindingly beautiful reality. The Fall is a true work of art.


~ Mighty Ganesha

May 5th, 2008


PS: The Fall is currently playing in New York and LA in the following cinemas:

New York City Theaters:
AMC Empire 25
The Sunshine

Los Angeles Theaters:
The Landmark
The Broadway 4 (Santa Monica)
Playhouse 7 (Pasadena)
University Town Center (Irvine)
The Block 30 (Orange)


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