As the follow-up to his visually impressive but ultimately hollow serial-killer flick The Cell, director Tarsem decided to ditch Hollywood (or was it vice versa?) and make The Fall his way. Of course, his way owes a lot to The Wizard of Oz, Pan's Labyrinth, and Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Which isn't bad cinematic company to keep. And though his film's ramshackle narrative is hastily woven into a tapestry of disparate scenes and motifs, oh, what a tapestry it is.
Shot over four years in 18 different countries, it is impossible to overstate the sheer beauty and wonder Tarsem brings to the screen. Film is truly his canvas, and though The Cell may have been a formulaic tale to dangle his symbolic imagery from, the director uses The Fall's twin narratives to much more ambitious effect, balancing his unfettered imagination — a swimming elephant, anyone — with a moving (if overly simple) dramatic spine.
Roy Walker (Pushing Daisies' Lee Pace) is a 1920s film stuntman recuperating from a dramatic on-set accident. He lies in his hospital bed contemplating suicide. Not because he might lose his legs but because his girlfriend has left him for the movie star he was doubling for. One day, by chance, he's visited by Alexandria (nonactor Catinca Untaru), a 5-year-old girl who survived an attack on her migrant worker family. Injured and orphaned, she maintains the kind of magical optimism only young children seem capable of.
The two become friends, with Roy filling their afternoons with a constantly shifting tale of epic courage and adventure. In his hodge-podge fantasy world, the Black Bandit (first Alexandra's father but then Roy himself) leads a quartet of exiled heroes — an escaped slave, an explosives expert, a scimitar-wielding Indian and Charles Darwin — against the dastardly Governor Odious (Daniel Caltagirone). Depicted in eye-popping settings and featuring one breathtaking tableau after another, the tale is a make-it-up-as-he-goes-along mix of princess-in-peril and Jules Verne adventure. And much like Oz, people in Alexandria's life play the fairy tale's fantastical roles.
But unlike Scheherazade, who told her stories to stay alive, Roy's fable has a darker purpose; as he demands that the naive little girl do him favors if she wants to learn how his cliffhangers end.
The Fall has so much allegorical and psychological potential it's a shame Tarsem and his screenwriters only scratch the surface, relying on contrived improvisation and childish leaps of logic to cover their tracks. Overshadowed by the movie's gorgeous swirl of rich colors, dreamlike locations and perfectly framed images, Roy and Alexandria work neither as flesh and blood characters nor as metaphorical archetypes, and the film is robbed of the resonance and sophistication it deserves.
Nevertheless, The Fall isn't nearly as shallow as some critics accuse it of being. In its final act, Tarsem casts an undeniably powerful spell as Roy twists his fairy tale toward tragedy and doom while Alexandria struggles to inject her boundless sense of hope. The narrative tug-of-war that ensues forces us to question whether this story-within-a-story is a meditation on Roy's desire to die or his last grasp for deliverance. Is Alexandria his unknowing angel of death or innocent savior?
Furthermore, Tarsem proposes that stories are far less passive than we assume, influenced equally by the teller and the listener. Nothing illustrates this better than a small moment when the Black Bandit is about to steal a kiss from his beloved atop a glorious palace — no doubt a romantic indulgence by Roy — when Alexandria, appearing as a self-created character in the scene, interrupts with something akin to a "yuck."
The Fall reminds us how the line between fantasy and reality can be blurred by desire, as it creates its inventive flights of imagination without CGI trickery or digital sleight of hand. Tarsem's carefully chosen real-life locales — an Escher-like temple, a city painted blue and a bleached white sand spit surrounded by azure waters — suggest that magic is where you find it and that the power of stories, like films, let us journey into the darkest regions of the soul then return us safely to the real world, where love and life awaits.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.