*½/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras C+
starring Lee Pace, Justine Waddell, Catinca Untaru
screenplay by Dan Gilroy and Nico Soultanakis & Tarsem
directed by Tarsem
by Walter Chaw Beware the film that positions itself as being told from the perspective of a child, because unless you're a child or that specific child's parent, you're eventually going to wish that someone would slap the kid in question. Tarsem's labour of love The Fall, his unlikely follow-up to his serial killer movie as shot by Salvador Dali-cum-Caspar David Friedrich The Cell, is such a film, told from a child's perspective--and rather than as an artistic decision, it plays as a plea for leniency. It's a fairytale about a little girl's emergence into maturity... No, it's a fairytale about the delicacy of life... No, it's not anything much of anything. By touching on a suicidal movie star's convalescence after an impressively-shot accident on a film set (involving a horse, Tarsem scholars take note), the picture seems to want to access some discussion concerning artificiality and its intrusion into reality--something that would make sense if The Fall positioned itself as a dyad with The Cell (which was, after all, only about film as a dream medium that acts as the brain does), but it doesn't really do that, either. All it does, in fact, is provide Tarsem an excuse to indulge his prurience and affection for elaborate set-pieces awash in saturated colours and tableaux that often border on the grotesque. Freed of the necessity to be coherent, freed of much understanding of Bruno Bettelheim or Jung or Freud, it's a fairytale without purpose and pretentious to boot, reminding more than a little of the also-pretty, also-empty Neil Gaiman/Dave McKean collaboration Mirrormask. It's too bad, really, as there are images in here genuinely affecting for their visual splendour. I wonder if it's unforgivable heresy to say The Cell is badly underestimated and due for revisionism while The Fall, despite its relative obscurity (no J-Lo anywhere in sight), is badly overestimated.
Stuntman Roy (Lee Pace--hate him in "Pushing Daisies", hate him here) breaks his leg while pretending to be someone else on a railroad trellis in the '20s while shooting a silent picture on the back of a horse. His fall, like the rest of the film, is heavily front-loaded with symbolism: everything from a smouldering steam engine suggesting the West's uneasy, ambiguous relationship with the rail (and how that is, or isn't, filtered through an Indian filmmaker's prism with his own complex relationship to the rail) to the idea that film (make-believe) is some culprit in Roy's seeming inability to escape his streak of hopeless romanticism. It is, alas, backloaded with nothing: all hat, no cattle. Roy's plan is that he'll tell stupid little girl Alexandria (Catinca Untaru, improvising like a stupid little girl asked to improvise in a movie) a vivid tale of derring-do in order to trick her into gathering a bunch of pills with which he might kill himself. He's suicidal because his girlfriend has left him for another man--because, Roy thinks, Roy might be paralyzed. Angsty, am I right? Then there's the fantasy he weaves involving a band of revenge-minded brigands, including an Indian (Jeetu Verma) who's lost his wife, a slave (Marcus Wesley) who's lost his buddy, an explosives guy (Robin Smith) who just likes to blow shit up, I guess, a mystic (Julian Bleach), Charles Darwin (Leo Bill), and the Blue Bandit (Pace himself). Carefully posed in various scenic locales, together they run around the world and storm the stronghold of Governor Odious, whom they blame for all their ills. It's beautiful to look at, of course, and so is a NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC. Where a NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC is better is that it's generally not so onanistic that it threatens at any point to fall completely into its creator's navel.
The Fall is a work of tremendous hubris. Ego and the artist are inseparable by necessity (who wants a remote, soulless film?)--the problem with a movie the filmmaker has taken as some personal crusade is that it will not be proofread, troubleshot, or edited. (See as another case study one George Lucas.) What this means is that The Fall is poorly written, has no coherent themes to drag it through its numerous dead patches, and goes on interminably during scenes with no interest while having nothing to say in moments that arrest. It thinks it's awfully cute when Alexandria invents numerous dei ex machina within the fantasy narrative to appease her fetal morality and discrimination--going so far as to entrust Untaru with more scenes she can destroy with the kind of "naturalism" that if I wanted I would inflict upon myself in the Wal-Mart toy aisle instead. Flights of fancy from a five-year-old are adorable--take it from the father of a five-year-old--but I wouldn't presume that anyone else would find as much joy in them.
The problem with The Fall is that it's too clearly a monument to the filmmaker's own belief in his creative genius. But it's only unbearable as a horrible mess of self-indulgence because, unlike people like Godard and Buñuel (who also made horrible messes of self-indulgence throughout their careers), Tarsem is quite clearly not a genius. He may be a decent music-video director, but strengths there--namely the ability to parse familiar images from a collective well of popular images as something else (the song) provides the only necessary justification for it--prove fatal detriment in a feature-length production. His approach to The Fall is the same, taking some broadly understandable, controversy-free stance on topics no one was disputing in the first place (life's what you make it; don't kill yourself; love is powerful) and using a series of beautifully-framed, expensively-shot non sequiturs to encourage its audience to project upon it depth and import. This sort of thing often works in four-minute chunks--it never has at 120+. The Fall isn't sweet, it's cutesy. It's not charming, it's insipid. It's not complex, it's childish. For a more interesting failure along near-identical lines, check out The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which, even with a young Sarah Polley, at least has energy and lucidity.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The only real reason to watch The Fall is because it's a prime opportunity to test the limits of the Blu-ray format at this young moment in its evolution. A light grain decorates the 1.85:1 video transfer--a high-bit, AVC-encoded 1080p presentation that replicates the small things well (black levels, flesh tones) but shines in rendering the picture's decadent, colour-saturated palette in all its glorious, eye-stabbing glory. There are moments in this picture (like the one where, lost, the band stands on different terraces of an impossible landscape) that demand a second, still look. Tarsem missed his calling: he should've been the guy snapping those poster-shots for display at travel agencies. Flaws? I didn't see any. A 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track accompanies the image and envelops completely with glorious logic and fullness without distortion or uneven levelling. It's gorgeous. I've watched the opening sequence a few times now and have determined that it's so good because it's about the exact length of a music video. Upon startup of the disc, suffer through semi-forced trailers for Resident Evil: Degeneration, Starship Troopers 3, Southland Tales, Damages Season 1, Redbelt, 88 Minutes, and When Did You Last See Your Father (sans question mark).
Extras begin with two audio commentaries, the first featuring Tarsem, who, as part of his introduction, promises to not stop talking for the duration. I appreciate that, actually, even though there's a lot of justification going on in here for something that he appears to consider one of the masterpieces of world cinema. He talks about how this film is a fairytale and how he loves the little girl he cast and how honest she is in her complete inability to be anything other than herself (and, damnably, how much he let her ad lib her dialogue and thus alter his film). Tarsem is well-spoken and energetic, though, and that's half the battle. A second yakker with Pace and co-writers Dan Gilroy and Nico Soultanakis is less interesting, mainly because Pace does most of the talking and devotes much of his time to narrating the film and gushing about it to no great educational end. It's completely pointless, in other words, a hagiography of a hagiography--and that's a lot of blowjobbing. A freeform "Behind the Scenes" (58 mins.) is essentially footage of Tarsem trying to inspire his troops to make either the best thing ever or the worst thing ever and urging all involved to go overboard constantly in the passionate pursuit of aimless excess. Warning or endorsement; how one responds to that promise is likely also how one will receive the film. Revelation that Pace came on set pretending to be crippled isn't interesting so much as the same breed of smug and self-serving as everything else. Two "Deleted Scenes" (2 mins.), presented in HD, are throwaway moments, adorable in that way that you recognize when other people think something is adorable but is actually twee and irritating. An extensive "Photo Gallery" is, well, extensive, and rounds out the platter. Originally published: June 9, 2009.