2008, R, 117 min. Directed by Tarsem Singh. Starring Lee Pace, Catinca Untaru, Justine Waddell, Julian Bleach.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., May 30, 2008
I fear for The Fall's marketing and advertising strategists. Their task – promoting and selling a visually stunning but ultimately mournful movie that is both richly layered with "once upon a time" fairy-tale subtext and dense with thickets of moral and motivational ambiguity – is unlikely to be an easy one. Did I mention The Fall is also a period picture? And has animated sequences, waterborne pachyderms, and a drolly humorous imagining of a monkey-conversant Charles Darwin? Scratch "unlikely to be easy"; convincing the moviegoing public that this rapturous fever dream of a film is anything more or less than a vibrant, vital, hopelessly romantic but intellectually obtuse game of blind man's chess between the director and himself (and perhaps, occasionally, the viewer) is bound to be an effort of Herculean proportions. That's a shame, because Tarsem (the music video director whose debut feature was The Cell and who prefers to be known by his first name alone) has discovered the secretive, magical underpinnings of the narrative form. Having a prototype to work from might have helped clear out some of the smothering ethereality of Tarsem's signature style, too. The Fall is based on a 1981 Bulgarian film, Yo Ho Ho written by Valeri Petrov, who also receives a story credit here. But what a story it is: It's the dawn of Hollywood, but cowboy stuntman Roy (Pace) is permanently out of the picture, gravely injured by an on-set mishap involving a horsebacked train-trestle tumble, a girl, and his heart. Deep in despair and intent on suicide yet unable to move from his bed, he befriends the inquisitive, 5-year-old orphan Alexandria (Untaru) and immediately begins to spin for her a fantastical story straight out of Kipling (if Kipling had scribbled Saturday afternoon serial scenarios for Monogram Pictures). The Fall is actually two films in one, with Roy's fanciful yarn becoming the dominant film-within-the-film and providing virtually all of The Fall's most astonishing and hyperstylized images. The two parallel stories eventually flow into and then collide with each other. (As in The Wizard of Oz, Alexandria's imagination populates Roy's bedside story with familiar faces from the her hospital surroundings.) But this brokenhearted cowboy's intent in the telling of the tale is not primarily to entertain his diminutive friend but to manipulate the doe-eyed innocent into procuring enough morphine tablets to ensure a quick and permanent end to his hospital stay. There are telltale signs that Tarsem has spent no small amount of time wandering through Guillermo del Toro's labyrinthine imagination, and The Fall lives and dies on the strength of Pace and Untaru's remarkable performances. It's there that the pulsing heart of this magical-real film beats most true. Tarsem has found a home for his endlessly unique visions, and (wouldn't you know?) it's beyond artifice and stealing toward art. (Director Tarsem will be in attendance at the Arbor's 7pm show on Monday, June 2.)