Welcome to “Flipping the Script,” a monthly column where I will reconsider recent films that have been panned, frowned upon, or simply under appreciated. I believe that movies should speak to us on a deep, personal level, and this column will consist of films that have done that for me despite widespread derision or apathy. Join me on my noble quest for cinematic redemption!
Like the events that set Tarsem Singh’s The Fall into motion, my discovery of the film was entirely an accident. I was searching for the acclaimed British television series of the same name, and this movie popped up instead. Starring Lee Pace? Presented by Spike Jonze and David Fincher? I was intrigued. One glimpse at the trailer convinced me to commit, and, 117 minutes later, I was smitten. I haven’t been able to get this resplendent, multi-layered colossus of storytelling out of my head since. (As for that British TV drama starring Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan? I hear it’s still very good, though I haven’t watched a single episode.)
The Fall debuted at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival to polarizing reviews. It was labeled as “self-indulgent,” which, disparagement aside, it undoubtedly is – director Tarsem Singh (a successful music video and commercial director who goes by “Tarsem” professionally and is now directing NBC’s Emerald City) financed the film mostly on his own, shooting over four years and 18 countries, free of studio constraints until the film’s 2008 theatrical release. It was dismissed as a film that would give viewers mood-whiplash, and as the story-within-a-story blends into reality, that is a very real danger indeed. Which, in my view, only serves to emphasize just how emotional the film is.
But The Fall has gained a host of staunch supporters over the years as well; none other than Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars, proclaiming that “there will never be another [film] like it,” and Tasha Robinson of The A.V. Club named it her top film of 2008. (At the very least, The Fall boasts the best use of the the second movement from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in a movie – see video below.) Now, I’m adding myself to their number – which, I suppose, means I can join Tarsem in the “self-indulgent” camp. Join me as I flip the script on 2008’s The Fall.
In my previous column, I praised The Book of Life for its visual splendor and deconstruction of storytelling. The Fall earns its place in my pantheon for the same reasons, but the two movies could not be more opposite: The Book of Life is fully animated, while the phantasmagoric visuals of The Fall are presented without any CGI whatsoever; and The Book of Life embraces the transcendent, capital-T Truth of stories, while The Fall exposes their capacity for manipulation.
The Fall takes place at a Los Angeles hospital in the 1920s, where Hollywood stuntman Roy Walker (Lee Pace, at the time known for Bryan Fuller’s Pushing Daisies television series) is confined after an on-set fall leaves him crippled. A 5-year-old girl named Alexandria (Romanian-born Catinca Untaru, whose lines were mostly unscripted to promote realism) is staying at the hospital due to a fall of her own. Alexandria is early childhood incarnate: we receive flickers of information throughout the film that hint at Alexandria’s tragedy-tinged backstory, but she waddles around the hospital’s hallways and grounds – unbalanced by the stiff cast immobilizing her arm – seemingly without a care in the world, a perfect picture of mischievous innocence.
It is the wayward trajectory of a note tossed out of her window that leads Alexandria to Roy’s bed. Singularly focused as only a young child can be, Alexandria shyly asks for her note back (it was intended for her nurse, Sister Evelyn), but Roy invites her over, and starts to tell her a story about the ancient origin of her name. He invites her to come back the next day to hear “an epic tale of love and revenge.”
Alexandria pulls up a chair (waddle, waddle) and Roy, after a brief distraction involving adult responsibilities, stands (metaphorically, of course) by his promise. “All right,” he tells her, “close your eyes.” She obliges, and the screen goes blank. “What do you see?” Promptly, Alexandria responds: “Nothing.” “Rub them,” Roy urges. “Can you see the stars?” The screen is speckled with shining sparks amidst the celestial blackness, the only colorless image in Roy’s tale. As befits the fantastical imagination of a child, the remainder of Roy’s story after that moment is presented in full-blown, vivacious technicolor.
If The Fall is known in film appreciation circles for anything, it is saluted for unabashedly luxuriating in the color spectrum. Each scene boggles the eyes like a psychedelic masterpiece of visual splendor. Incredibly – and paradoxically, considering the “fantasy” element of the story within the “real” story of Roy and Alexandria – the settings are all real: staggering landscapes and architectural marvels captured on film across 26 filming locations, buoyed by Eiko Ishioka’s fanciful costume designs. (Certainly, some credit goes to cinematographer Colin Watkinson as well.) The stunning visuals serve to accent the candy-colored imagination of a child, where the story essentially plays out – helped along, of course, by Roy’s Hollywood-inspired narration. He introduces our five unlikely heroes: a proud former slave called Otta Benga (Jeetu Verma), an Italian explosives expert named Luigi (Robin Smith), British naturalist Charles Darwin (Leo Bill), an Indian warrior (Jeetu Verma), and a masked bandit. They have vowed a quest of revenge against the evil Governor Odious (Daniel Caltagiron), who has wronged each of them in turn.
In The Fall, the telling of the story is itself an integral part of the story. As the viewer, it’s fascinating to see the epic quest play out through Alexandria’s eyes. As Roy introduces “the Indian,” Alexandria pictures (and Tarsem shows us) a man from India, though we learn later that Roy was in fact referring to a Native American man. Alexandria’s creative input expresses itself most consciously in the case of the identity of the masked bandit – after seeing a photograph of her family, Roy presents the bandit as Alexandria’s father, but she protests that her father is dead and that Roy should play the bandit himself. Which, for the remainder of the film, he does.
The genius of The Fall is that there are multiple stories laid out in the film, overlapping at various intervals until they converge in an emotionally fraught, climactic finale. Meanwhile, ,the tragic tale of Roy’s fall occurs completely offscreen, before Alexandria first meets him in his hospital bed: after losing his beloved, the leading lady, to the actor playing the leading man, Roy attempts a dangerous stunt and ends up paralyzed from the waist down. This much can be gleaned from snippets of background conversations, while Alexandria is otherwise distracted – obviously, she understands nothing of what she is privy to, but we, as adult viewers, know otherwise. This creates an enthralling disconnect, forcing the audience to look deeper at Alexandria’s vivid, fictional constructions – wait, is that Nurse Evelyn or the princess? Is that the ice delivery man at the hospital or Otta Benga the escaped slave? – and to keep our ears open for words meant to pass right over the attention span of a little girl.
We learn early on that Roy is only telling Alexandria the story in order to manipulate her into stealing morphine tablets for him, and, oblivious to the gravity of his requests, she agrees. But as Roy and Alexandria’s lives begin to unravel, the story Roy is fabricating bleeds into reality, and the two become invested in the epic fantasy not as a fiction, but as a lens through which they can see the truth. The story becomes a wild creature, and when Alexandria complains about the turn of events, Roy protests: “It’s my story!” She shoots back with: “It’s mine, too!” And it can be yours, if you let it.