The Fall is the most Josh movie I’ve ever seen.
Or, at least, I’ve never seen a movie which so exquisitely reminded me of what it was like to be a child who daydreamed entire worlds while struggling to articulate them (a problem I still kinda have today) while also functioning as a study on the nature of narrative and interpretation while also delivering in live-action a level of eye-popping, surreal beauty and grotesquery that you usually don’t find outside of Miyazaki’s oeuvre.
It’s rare that a movie seems so gift-wrapped to my interests.
The Fall was directed and co-written by Tarsem Singh, who is probably most well known for directing The Cell, the deeply flawed yet still interesting horror movie where Jennifer Lopez goes inside the mind of a comatose serial killer. But that was a studio movie; The Fall was bankrolled out of Singh’s own pocket in some sort of crazy, follow-your-dreams act, and as a result seems to have been written off as a vanity project, only seeing a quiet release in 2008.
Anyway, on the surface level it tells a rather melodramatic story set in early 20th century Los Angeles about Roy (Lee Pace), a hospitalized, suicidal Hollywood stunt double who befriends Alexandra (Catinca Untaru), a Romanian child also staying at the same hospital due to a broken arm. Roy attempts to manipulate Alexandra into stealing drugs for him by telling her a story, but the power of her love for him, and his own guilty conscience, lead him to discover that life is still worth living. This already sounds like the most treacly, Oscar-bait fluff when I describe it like that. But even the scenes that hinge around this plot have a nice, low-key quality to them, due to their semi-improvised nature, and the chemistry between Pace and Untaru is so natural that you quickly buy into their relationship.
The other layer of the narrative, however, is the story that Roy tells Alexandra, a fantasy about five bandits who seek revenge against the villainous Governor Odious. And this is where things get crazy.
For starters, this story was shaped by Untaru’s own reactions to, and ideas about the fantasy narrative as it was told to her. So you have a situation where about half of the movie was effectively co-written by a six -year-old. Also, the scenes relating to this half had to be shot entirely on location in 20+ different countries. In case, you know, you were wondering why The Fall couldn’t get studio backing.
It’s not worth going into further detail about the plot of the bandit story, as it’s as gleefully nonsensical and episodic as you’d imagine, serving mainly as a vehicle for delivering some of the most arrestingly beautiful, weird and painterly cinematic visuals I’ve ever seen, where characters dressed in flamboyant, Final Fantasy-esque costumes exist in a oversaturated backdrop of real-world locations that have somehow been mutated into impossible, abstract landscapes.
This is where Tarsem Singh’s gambit pays off, aesthetically. There are a lot of movies that attempt to enter the whimsy of childhood fantasy, but they are often obviously an adult’s idea of what a child’s imagination is like. While the end result here reflects the director’s imagination as much as anything (and the thing isn’t a childrens’ movie by any stretch), Untaru’s contribution gives it the actual rhythm and feeling of how a childlike mind operates, even if that means it sacrifices coherent meaning on the literal level.
But then there’s how the “real” story, and the bandit story relate to each other. Roy gives the bandit story’s narration, while the visuals are Alexandra’s interpretation as the audience, and we see immediately how these two things interact. Roy’s story is shaped by his own life experiences, which is why it is a revenge story reflecting his own grievances against the people he feels has wronged him in life. But Alexandra’s imagination shapes the story according to her own background, with faces being supplied by people in her life, and with her sometimes just straight up misinterpreting what Roy is saying (for instance, when Roy speaks of one of the bandits being Indian, he obviously means a Native American, but Alexandra interprets this as him being South Asian, and so that is what we see). So there’s already some interesting stuff about how the act of interpreting a narrative already opens it up to meanings and layers that go beyond the original authorial intent, that you can’t help but bring yourself into the story you are experiencing.
Note also that Roy is telling the story for mercenary purposes, but that this doesn’t invalidate Alexandra’s experiences of it as part of her own search for a father figure and attempt to make sense of the situation she finds herself in.
But on another level we see how the narratives we tell about ourselves and that we allow ourselves to be shaped by, can have the power to condemn or redeem us. Roy sees his life as a tragedy in which suicide is the only ending; Alexandra sees her life as mysterious and frightening, but nonetheless hopeful. Alexandra, in essence, gives Roy an alternate interpretation of his life. Through their interaction he comes to accept that the story he lives in may not be a tragedy after all. Or, put another way, the story he tells, and the audience it creates, takes on a life of its own that comes around to shape him too in unexpected ways.
It’s the sort of English major thesis stuff thing that could only work in film if it were handled by someone who was so aggressively visual in their storytelling vocabulary so as to not get bogged down by its own self-reflexive didacticism, which Tarsem Singh is: it’s entirely possible to turn off your brain and enjoy it for the sheer spectacle. The first time I saw it, I kinda worried that it would fall apart on repeat viewings, and would reveal itself to be empty calories. But three viewings in, and I’m still finding hidden riches.