Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
June 2008

A tale of two souls

Tarsem's 'The Fall' is an exceptional, surprising blend of intimate storytelling and bombastic visual experimentation

The Fall
Roadside Attractions
Director: Tarsem
Screenplay: Dan Gilroy, Nico Soultanakis and Tarsem, based on a 1981 screenplay by Valeri Petrov
Starring: Lee Pace, Catinca Untaru, Justine Waddell, Marcus Wesley, Jeetu Verma, Robin Smith, Leo Bill and Daniel Caltagirone
Rated R / 1 hour, 57 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

It has been eight years since Tarsem released a feature film, and if that time has taught him how to marry subject matter with his uncompromising visual style, then it was worth the time . . . and the time was well-needed.

Tarsem, a renowned commercial and music-video director, made his feature directing debut in 2000 with The Cell, a pseudo-sci-fi thriller about a psychiatrist who enters the subconscious of a serial killer to try to save his next intended victim - and the killer's soul. It shifted back and forth between her journey into his psyche - rendered with elaborate detail and majestic visual design, its settings and colors growing darker and more threatening the deeper the good doctor goes - and, in the real world, the laziest police procedural you'll ever see.

Though its remarkable visuals were all you could possibly remember about the film, everything outside the killer's brain made much of The Cell a chore to sit through. As if Tarsem barely cared that there was a story going on.

Thankfully, that is not the case with The Fall, which, after premiering at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival, finally found a distributor this year.

Like the director's earlier effort, The Fall tells two different narratives. The base story involves two inhabitants of a 1920 Los Angeles hotel - Roy (Lee Pace, of the great ABC series Pushing Daisies), a paraplegic, and a young girl named Alexandria (Catinca Untaru).

The other story is a fantastical, epic tale of betrayal, vengeance, adventure and romance - all the things that make the movies worthwhile - that Roy unfolds to Alexandria to keep her company, pass the time . . . and trick her into sneaking off to the forbidden areas of the hospital to steal him some morphine pills. He's a jilted romantic whose idealism shattered with an ill-fated grand, romantic gesture that left him paralyzed (unfortunate, when you're a professional stuntman) and heartbroken, his great love now in the arms of another man.

His story is a tale of bitter revenge - a group of five men all after the head of the same man, the one who ruined all their lives. The famous movie star who stole Roy's special lady is, naturally, the villain in the tale, the appropriately odious Governor Odious (Daniel Caltagirone).

What's surprising about The Fall is how well the two storylines complement each other. One could assume that the hospital scenes would be merely an excuse to get to the fantastical flights of fancy, but in fact the relationship that builds between Roy and Alexandria - the two acting as each other's only human connection in an otherwise dreary hospital - remains front and center.

Only when the fantasy must necessarily coincide with Roy and Alexandria's lives does it take over, and even then, it's because it matters desperately to each of them how the story must end. How the story ends holds great meaning to the fate of the two characters.

The scenes with Roy and Alexandria are warm and surprisingly funny. They try their best to communicate despite her hit-or-miss English and his secret suicidal tendencies. They negotiate the details of the story so it's just the way they want it. They insert themselves into it. They create their heroes and villains out of their fellow hospital inhabitants - doctors and patients alike.

The beautiful nurse whose emotions are impossible to detect? She's the disloyal love interest. The kind, quiet orderly? He's Charles Darwin, reclusive genius and one of our five heroes.

And so on.

Unlike The Cell, which took everyone's humanity - except for the serial killer himself - for granted, with none of the characters getting beyond their role in the plot, the most important conflict in The Fall is directly tied to who each of these characters are.

Without spoiling the circumstances, Roy and Alexandria come into conflict over how the story should end. Their contrasting opinions on the matter reveal their souls openly, and the conclusions the film ultimately comes to are crucial in exploring both. In The Cell, you can see that the decisions are being made by a lazy screenwriter. With The Fall, you feel they are being made by the characters.

Of course, none of that should distract us from the most notable star of the film, Tarsem himself. He self-financed The Fall and filmed intermittently over a couple of years and in more than two-dozen countries.

The result is a cornucopia of eclectic settings, ostentatious costumes, gorgeously colored landscapes and absurdly imaginative visual ideas. Only this time, all of that serves something bigger. Both storylines are effective in and of themselves, but neither is complete without the other.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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