The Fall is directed by a fellow who only goes by the name Tarsem. I always have something of an irrational suspicion of anyone that only goes by one name, but I must say this guy fascinates me. Tarsem (real name Tarsem Singh Dhandwar) was a director of music videos (including the famous R.E.M. “Losing My Religion” video!) before he came out with the Jennifer Lopez vehicle The Cell in 2000. I rented The Cell once, but was never able to finish it due to a scratched up disc that crapped out about halfway into it. What I saw was very visually innovative, and I’m not sure why I never got around to checking out the rest of it. Tarsem wouldn’t make another film for another six years, a work called The Fall, which debuted at the Toronto international film festival way back in 2006 and proceeded to sit on the shelf for almost two years for one reason or another. Finally in the summer of 2008 the film would see a release with “presented by” credits going to fellow music video alums David Fincher and Spike Jonze. I finally caught up to it shortly after its DVD release.
The film begins in 1920s Hollywood and follows a 10 year old girl named Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), an immigrant with a broken arm staying at a hospital. There she meets Roy Walker (Lee Pace), a stuntman who’s bedridden after a stunt gone wrong. After a little chat, Roy begins to tell Alexandria an elaborate fantasy story, this story within a story takes up a lot of the film’s screen time and it the source of most of the film’s visual imagination. This story is set in some kind of 18th century near east fantasy realm, and follows five warriors who all want bloody revenge against the evil Governor Odious.
The catch to all this is that Roy isn’t really committed to the story he’s telling, he’s doing it as part of a Scheherazade scheme in order to trick Alexandria into bringing him morphine. He begins by telling a pirate story, but quickly changes it to something else when Alexandria tells him she doesn’t like pirates. This is a clear signal to the audience that Roy is making this story up as he goes, and this makes all the difference because it gives Tarsem the ability to take the story in all kinds of crazy directions in order to justify his visual imagination, and there’s an explanation for it in the story.
These visuals do indeed live up to Tarsem’s reputation. The film’s art direction is really creative, and the costumes are absolutely outlandish. I also really like how Tarsem is willing to really pull the camera really far and let the visuals play out in massive scale. This is a rare thing in this world of close-ups and small scope. I’d call the film completely original if it weren’t for the fact that Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen weren’t so similar to it in style, tone, and set up.
As Roy gets to be in a worse and worse mood, the story within a story begins to get darker, but that’s about as deep as this project gets. Ultimately, The Fall seems like a fairly shallow film. The story within a story doesn’t amount to much, it just sort of exists. Shallow though it may be, the film works very well in the moment, it’s a fun movie to watch and the production design is pretty neat. For this reason, I’m more than willing to recommend the film, but I don’t think it’s going to have a whole lot of shelf life.
*** out of four