Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Review: The Fall

The Fall (2008, trailer) is both one of my favorite and one of the most obscure films I have ever come across, and everyone I have shown it to has really enjoyed it. There are also countless glowing reviews on IMDb, and why it is not more well known continues to be a mystery to me.

Our story takes place in 1919, in a hospital/monastery in California. The two principal characters are Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), a five-year-old Romanian immigrant with an arm broken from a fall out of a tree; and Roy (Lee Pace), a stuntman who is rendered bedridden from a fall of his own.

While wandering around the dreary and uneventful wards, Alexandria encounters and begins chatting with Roy, who starts to invent and recite to her an elaborate tale featuring a grand quest and fantastical characters.

Including the Indian, who whenever anxious always stroked his brow.

At first Roy develops the story out of his own boredom and his rapport with the wide-eyed Alexandria, but soon he starts leaving tantalizing cliffhangers and strange requests: ‘I’m having a hard time sleeping, and I can’t remember the story... I need pills to finish the story.’ The rest of the film explores the ulterior motives of Roy, Alexandria’s growing attachment to him, and the progression of his story.

My Take

The key to the film’s success for me is the character of Alexandria, the five-year-old protagonist.

Let’s face it: young child actors are terrible, and filmmakers must know it, given how mercifully small many of their roles are. They are wooden and unconvincing when given lines, and otherwise they are either just mute props who need protecting and rescuing, or stationary wallflowers to provide ‘cute’ eye candy and/or padding for a Family Environment.

I don’t mean this as an insult, I just believe that young children are spontaneous and don’t yet have the requisite attention span and experience to imagine, create and ‘lie’ a character. Paradoxically, the inevitably obvious artifice required for them to play written roles often traps and sabotages their actual childlike behaviors and makes them appear dubious even in their roles as small children.

Which brings me to The FallLike Rob Reiner and his junior high-aged actors in Stand By Me, Fall director Tarsem Singh makes the shrewd and uncommon decision to search for a child actor who could ‘be’ Alexandria, rather than simply assign her role to just any child actress and tell her to ‘act’ it.

Catinca Untaru’s honest, unscripted childlike logic and candor provide a funny and colorful sense of personality which I don’t think I have before seen explored in film. Before Roy comes up with his epic, he recounts a tale in which Alexander the Great is stranded in the desert dying of thirst with a band of men. After being given a helmet full of water he decides, Solomon-like, to pour it all out onto the sand.

‘Why?’ Alexandria asks.

‘Well, because there wasn’t enough water for all of them. It was Alexander the Great’s way of showing his army that they were all equal.’

‘It’s stupid.’

‘What? What would you do better?’

‘Was Alexander throw the water, instead to give every soldier a little bit.’

Or, with her accent, a leetle beet.

The Fall features much quirky humor around the theme of childlike spontaneity, both in young Alexandria and in Roy.

For example, Roy appropriates Charles Darwin as a character in his story and describes in voiceover that Darwin is ‘looking for something’, and on screen we see him climb to the top of his greenhouse and peer through a telescope. ‘A butterfly?’ we hear Alexandria ask. ‘Good guess,’ Roy confirms, and we see Darwin ditch the telescope for a butterfly net.

The filmmaking keeps us rooted in Alexandria’s reality, as in one scene where she is waiting to meet Roy, who is busy conversing with a visitor about his injury. We hear snatches about Roy’s accident and his personal life, which are intriguing to ‘us’ watching the film, but none of this concerns Alexandria, whose attention wanders. As her perception shifts, so does ‘ours’ – the camera turns to a priest talking to a patient, and the sound design now puts him in the forefront and Roy in the periphery.

Roy’s story is represented visually, and this lavish fantasy comprises much of The Fall’s runtime. The dozens of stunning locations featured range from France to Fiji and showcase stretching deserts, majestic ruins and a butterfly-shaped tropical island.

The heroes are dressed in colorful, larger-than-life costumes, and their adventure sequences are masterfully filmed with immersive, kinetic camera movement and rhythmic editing. Clever and creative transitions are employed, like this cut from the face of a traitorous monk:

to the betrayed characters’ entrapment:

Since Alexandria is the one imagining the fantasy, what we see is influenced by her mind. Roy’s character of the ‘Indian’ is obviously meant to mean Native American, and Roy even refers to his home as a wigwam, but in Alexandria’s imagination we see a literal turbaned Indian living in a resplendent palace.

The characters surrounding Alexandria in the hospital also appear as thematically similar characters in the story. We see a kindly old patient as a wise mystic, and a lead-clad X-ray technician becomes the basis for the malevolent henchmen of the evil Governor Odious. Alexandria’s fondness for Roy is also manifested in the revelation of his face under the mask of the Black Bandit, the hero of the story.

I think that The Fall is a real achievement; both in naturalistic, intimate character study and in epic, extravagant imagery. Tarsem Singh financed the film himself and made it over the course of four years to maintain his creative freedom over the project, and the result is very striking and makes me appreciate his ability and potential.

In the meantime, I guess he’s just decided to make ridiculous-looking blockbusters, though.

Screengrabs: The Fall was produced by Radical Media, Deep Films, Absolute Entertainment (II), Tree Top Films Inc. and Googly Films. The UK DVD was distributed by Momentum Pictures.

© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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