FINISHING SCHOOL: The Fall (2006)

thefalldvdThe trailer for Tarsem’s The Fall is of the sort that comes along once in a while to utterly beguile you and demand to be watched over and over. Sometimes it leads to an amazing film (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) and other times a disappointing one (I Heart Huckabees). The end result of The Fall is somewhere in between (check out that trailer here, in high-res if you can).

Following the middling reaction to SF headtrip film The Cell with Jennifer Lopez, director Tarsem spent 4 years intermittently filming The Fall with his own funds in around 20 countries, in a piecemeal fashion similar to David Lynch’s Inland Empire (although I’m unsure whether, like Lynch, Tarsem started without a complete script). Its distribution path has been rocky – 18 months after premiering at the Toronto Film Festival it was finally released in American cinemas to a resounding shrug, although some critics like Roger Ebert made a strong case for the film. It hasn’t been released in Australia yet, even on DVD, over two years later.

Intrigued by the trailer, I grabbed a copy on DVD from the UK and finally watched it recently. Set in a 1920s Los Angeles hospital, it tells of 5-year-old Alexandra (Catinca Untaru), who while recovering from a broken arm meets Roy (Lee Pace), a bedridden former stuntman convalescing from a stunt gone wrong. Whether he will walk again is uncertain. Alexandra befriends him and he weaves a fairy tale story for her incorporating history and mythology from Charles Darwin to tribal mystics with birds in their bellies. In exchange for the story, he needs her to steal some medicine for him…

Whether the script was complete from the beginning or not, The Fall is a little too fragmented for its own good. The visuals are as stunning as they appear in the trailer, and given how recently I ended up watching it I wish I’d waited and got the Blu-Ray. Tarsem’s compositions and transitions are often breathtaking, but the fairy tale itself is not engaging enough in itself to sustain such lengthy interludes. The parallels to what we learn of Roy’s history as the film progresses may assist a second viewing, to see where the two bleed together.

The hospital scenes are lovely though, with the conversations between Pace and Untaru largely improvised, and improvised scenes with a gregarious 5-year old are as adorable as they sound. Untaru, new to acting, is such a real child free of virtually all dramatic precision and polish that her innocence makes their relationship heartbreaking – she manages the difficult trick of having no acting experience but enthralling you nonetheless. Pace demonstrates his versatility too – he’s a world away from Pushing Daisies here, and I hope he continues to find lead roles like this.

This was a passion project for Tarsem and his ambition is laudable, as is his realisation of fairy tale and fable, which is rarely seen on-screen these days. The Fall is ultimately not cohesive or engaging enough to match the beauty of its imagery and photography, but it marks Tarsem as a director to watch.

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