03 July 2008

The Fall

Directed by: Tarsem
Written by: Tarsem & Nico Soultanakis and Dan Gilroy
Full Credits from IMDb

Grade: A-

Tarsem—just Tarsem—turns fantasy on its head in The Fall. In these Dreamworks days, fairy tales, with their simple morals, usually function as childish diversions. But here, fantasy instead serves as a means of exposing children to the cruelty and violence of the real world. The Fall, more Carlo Collodi than Walt Disney, takes up that old struggle between narrative invention and uninvented reality; as such, it’s certainly not for children: its violence is unrelenting, from the frequent suicide jumpers to the chandelier fashioned from the mutilated bodies of slaughtered men.

The 9-year-old Catinca Untaru, all chubby cheeks, missing teeth and broken English, plays a patient at a Los Angeles hospital with a broken arm. (The title cards tell us the temporal setting is “Once Upon a Time”; it looks an awful lot like the 1930’s.) The little girl has not led a sheltered life: the film suggests that she is a child laborer from a poor family of exploited immigrants and that she broke her arm in a fall—one of the many from which the film takes its name—while picking oranges. But the hospital, with its largely friendly staff and patients, serves as a fantasyland, at least through the imaginative eyes of a child: knights (i.e. old-fashioned X-ray technicians in what looks like medieval armor) clunk through the halls and pirates (i.e. a visiting stuntman with a missing leg) inhabit the rooms. Movie stars stop by and big blocks of sweaty ice are truck-delivered daily.

But the imagined fantasy-of-the-everyday hides a meanness from which the small girl is largely protected—the dark-hearted man who hits his kids, the woman pleading with her dead son to wake up—until Lee Pace (Pushing Daisies’ piemaker with the Clooneyesque movie star charm and acting chops to boot) exposes it to her via storytelling. At first, his stories are benign and for us a treat, as they are set not against the cheap CGI wonders of a George Lucas greenscreen but among the most gorgeous sets ever built by God or man—mountains of corporate-logo orange from the former; gilded palaces and infinite, Escherian staircases from the latter. Soon, however, Pace’s stories turn gloomier.

A stuntman in the hospital after a backbreaking on-set accident, Pace has lost the use of his legs; his career; and his girl, who has taken up with the picture’s star. The tale he devises for Untaru parallels his circumstance: an evil “governor” has kidnapped a princess; a band of heroes must save her and kill him. Pace, however, invents this story only to win the little girl’s friendship, manipulating her to steal pills for him so that he may kill himself by overdose.

A self-financed production largely piggybacked onto the director’s advertising work, The Fall is not without its problems: the tone of the fantasy sections, from the costuming to the acting styles, often slips too far into the gaudy, while the story is shamelessly manipulative. But thanks to the sincerity of its principals, it retains an emotional credibility. When Untaru tells Pace, “I hope I never get better so I can stay here with you,” it is neither cloying nor insufferable. Just heartbreaking.

Particularly as Pace does not share her sentimental attachment to the hospital, or to life. When his initial suicide fails, what ought to be a happy moment—he lives!—is shattered instead by animalistic fury over the pain of surviving. “There’s no happy ending with me,” he tells Untaru and, as his death-starved rage rises, his story takes a series of cruel turns. “All things must die,” Pace says as he begins killing off characters. “I don’t like this story,” Untaru responds, tears welling in her eyes as she begs him to stop. “It’s not very satisfying, is it?” Pace asks between swigs from a flask.

Plenty of films are constructed around the conflict between the escapism of storytelling—read: cinema—and the bleakness of reality: the struggle to see if the spirit of the former can overtake the misery of the latter. But rarely is that struggle as protracted as it is in The Fall, which allows reality to triumph over fantasy in its mercilessly continuing violence. The film is ultimately sweet, but it earns its sweetness by fighting for it. Like most fairy tales, The Fall has a happy(ish) ending; but unlike many of its peers, it earns that happy ending by grinding the audience’s emotions. Of course, this being a movie, cinema wins in the end. In a final scene that tips its hat to Sullivan’s Travels’ conclusion, Tarsem joins the great rank of directors (Preston Sturges, Woody Allen) who have made us believe that cinema is a reason in and of itself to live.

Watch the trailer:


Clayton L. White said...

Man, you have given me hope for this film. I had heard so many bad things about it, but my excitement has returned. I really liked Tarsem's first movie, The Cell, and I was hoping he would finally come back to cinema. Also, Eiko Ishioka's costumes are always mind boggling.

Anonymous said...

I hope you like it...critics were pretty divided (this year's Southland Tales?) but it's still playing in NY over two months after its release. Not a lot of movies do that, so it must be getting a steady word-of-mouth crowd. I never saw The Cell; I've heard only bad things, but considering the amount of bad press this movie got I guess I should go back.