The Fall

One of the most reliable rules for watching films has always been to avoid directors with only one name – from McG to Pitof, the presence of a mono-monikered helmer is generally cause for concern. However, The Fall may be the exception that proves the rule. It is the definition of a vanity project, and, as Roger Ebert points out, “you can only admire the man vain enough to make it”. That man is Tarsem, an Indian-born director whose back catalogue consists mostly of music videos and advertisements, and he has written, directed and even financed an extraordinary and unfairly ignored gem.

It begins in a hospital in early 20th century Los Angeles, where a paralysed movie stuntman, Roy (Lee Pace) weaves a surreal fantasy tale for a fellow patient, 6 year old Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), in a plot somewhat reminiscent of The Princess Bride. However, this is not such a light-hearted film, and the motive behind Roy’s skilful storytelling is soon revealed to be dark and tragic. First shown at the Toronto Film Festival to a largely derisive critical response in 2006, it nonetheless grabbed the attention of fellow music-turned-film directors Spike Jonze and David Fincher, who executive-produced it for a 2008 theatrical release.

Amongst the little coverage it received, critics largely concentrated on the film’s breath-taking visuals, with every shot a beautifully composed work of art. Indeed, it is surprising to note that the film contains absolutely no CGI, instead relying on locations in 24 different countries and a gruelling 4-year shoot in order to achieve its stunning look. However, this led to widespread critical dismissal of the film as a shallow exercise in aesthetic indulgence – Tarsem himself happily refers to it as “a visual wank” – but it is so much more. Alongside vistas so stunning that they might just melt your eyes, The Fall is unashamedly sentimental about story telling, and offers a dewy-eyed celebration of the transformative power of art.

Much of the film’s power comes from the performance of Catinca Untaru, a young Romanian girl with no pervious acting experience. So central is this performance that the film would not have been made had the right actress not been found, and production was fast-tracked as soon as Untaru was discovered. Her naturalism and innocence is extraordinary, both of which seem to stem largely from a semi-improvised script and an unsteady grasp of the English language. Tarsem is reluctant to admit the extents he went to in order to coax the best performance out of her that he could, but whatever he did, it worked wonders – he now rivals Spielberg in his ability to mine a truly great performance out of a child actor.

The Fall is one of a handful of films that can truly be referred to as ‘visual poetry’, though such a hackneyed term hardly does it justice, and fails to take note of its emotional power. It is a film at once joyous and sinister, a fantastical and truly original celebration of the powers of story telling and cinema. Extremely close in tone and quality to the better-known (and more widely praised) Pan’s Labyrinth, the film deserves to be regarded as a worthy companion to Del Toro’s masterpiece. Tarsem has almost single-handedly produced a film of staggering beauty and wild ambition, and his plaudits are long overdue.

Originally published by Cherwell, in print and online, on 22/02/2010.

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