Monday, November 22, 2010

Review: The Fall: tripping the lite fantastic

Tarsem Singh was responsible for the film I put at the end of the 90s serial killer genre. At the time I dismissed it as style over substance and the most desperate final stroke of the cat on the old grey mare. Now that I’ve seen the only feature film he made after it I’m inclined to give The Cell another run. The main problem with The Cell was that the inventiveness and intense richness of the imagery left the generic narrative so far behind that whenever the story surfaced it felt clumsy and unwelcome. There are similar issues with The Fall but to completely different effect: they work this time.

Roy, a stuntman for the early movies, is in hospital after a fall has left him partially paralysed. The woman he loves has rejected him. He’s been better. A simple accident leads little Alexandria, a European √©migr√© girl, to his ward and almost immediately the two begin a rapport which swiftly evolves into an epic tale of adventure. So far this could be any kid’s story but Roy isn’t just relieving his boredom, his mind is on the morphine tablets kept in the hospital’s pharmacy in overdose quantities and he knows that a popular little girl like Alexandria can have free passage through all the gloomy halls of health care. He doesn’t just want to tell a good yarn, he needs to.

The Fall is based on a time-obscured Bulgarian film called Yo Ho Ho which I wish was available. It’s also in the same territory as Terry Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen. So you might want some lightness of touch with the central relationship and a hand as heavy as possible with the more fantastical elements and a strong interplay between them. I’ll get the latter out of the way first.

The Fall is probably the most visually beautiful fiction film I’ve ever seen. If you could animate all of those special report photographs from National Geographic, photography textbooks and computer monitor calibration test cards you might just get something as rich as this film.  Deserts look like powdered ochre. Grassland almost smells of wet earth. A butterfly transmogrifies into a reef bound island in an opalescent sea. Add to this a selection of ancient and renaissance architecture from Europe, the middle and far easts, whether moss mottled ruin or jade green pavilion. Edible colour. But even the opening sequence in black and white features a clarity and depth that could shut the most inveterate movie-talker well up.

But it’s not all sheen. Mixing aesthetics from world history into the colour palette reveals a strange blend of influences; Mayan and Persian, Gothic and Ming, Pacific and Saharan. A wedding is consecrated amid a host of whirling dervishes in a circular building that might be in Florence. A desert landscape gives way to a rich green rainforest. It’s a dizzying cocktail but it has a real point. And that point is the reason The Fall works and The Cell didn’t.

The Cell, a kind of psychiatric Fantastic Voyage, took the audience into the mind of a comatose serial killer as a shrink tried to discover the whereabouts of the perp’s final victim. So we got Tarsem’s showreel of the weird and woeful, going from Hieronymous Bosch through David Lynch to Damien Hirst. Everything looked very pretty (even when it was meant to disgust) but all of it really had one reference point so it didn’t matter how strong the imagery got it could only ever loop what it had already stated.

The Fall has a built-in mechanism preventing this. Roy is telling a story, making it up as he goes along. Sometimes he’s interrupted by Alexandria who points out a logic problem here or voices an emotional objection there. Sometimes Roy’s limitations constrain the story and its scope. Alexandria’s impatience might motivate the characters (as it does when she keeps listening over a nagging bladder). Dig? The tale is naturalistic; it can go where it wants; it can be ruled by its teller or his audience or it can be used to manipulate them: the uncertainty of its character, what happens to its tone is as important as what happens to its players. The base narrative doesn’t drag the fantasy one nor does the fantasy feel too light for the gravity of the initial setting. The balance is achieved by mutual dependence. 

Telling tales is a euphemism for lying. Modified truth or misrepresentation appears in almost every frame of this film. Roy’s career is based on his success at creating illusions and it is his tale that feeds the trust at the centre of the film’s narrative. And cinema is everywhere, not just in the screening of the film that has caused Roy’s despair but in the reversed image of a horse drawn cart that Alexandria sees through an accidental camera oscura of a keyhole. The radiologist in his 1920s lead armour is what she sees when the whinnying violent henchmen of the tale’s Governor Odious appear. Cinema is imagination and imagination is cinema. When the film’s final sequence rolls we hear Alexandria’s own narration fading in and out of what we are seeing. What she has learned from this time is something new, something she has fashioned from her own experience rather than repeated from a delivered message. I can think of no finer suggestion of what cinema might be.

I don’t think that I’ll find something deeper in The Cell a second time. This next effort is made from such different stuff that the sole point of comparison between the two is the richness of the visuals. The difference which is a question of substance sets them far apart. Tarsem did use something he found to create this film rather than start from scratch but he clearly believed in it enough to make the exact film he wanted over a period of four years, sneaking in location work on shoots for his main profession (ads and music videos) eking finance where he could. There’s no need to compare the titles themselves but this aspect reminds me of nothing so much as the story of the production of my favourite film: Eraserhead.

I haven't even mentioned the clear influence of Jodorosky, or the intelligent extension made of a famous piece by Beethhoven, or that one of the characters in Roy's tale is Charles Darwin who gets around in a bowler and an overcoat made of about seventy flamingoes, and carries a bag containing a monkey called Wallace. I'd normally be apologetic about such a gush but I will say that the film quite frequently punches under the weight it has declared and the performances are uneven throughout. But I think such a rare exercise of cinematic muscle and a celebration of storytelling that owns its manipulitive motivations is an impressive thing. Finally,  I think that the difficulty this film must have posed for the marketeers in trying to find a target audience is what I like the most about it. Not perfection, by any means, The Fall is just something that most contemporary cinema isn't: it's interesting.

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