Friday, 24 April 2009

Brilliant Failures #1: The Fall (Tarsem, 2008)

Released last month on DVD, The Fall is the visionary fantasy from the Indian director Tarsem Singh (known simply as ‘Tarsem'). Normally one should be wary of directors with singular nomenclature (e.g. the anti-brand that is ‘McG' - director of the revamped Terminator franchise) but I encourage you to put your prejudices aside for this stunning slice of fabulation, in the spirit of The Princess Bride.

Like Reiner/Goldman's film it uses a similar meta-narrative. Alexandria, a young girl with a broken arm (astonishingly played by Catinca Untaru) befriends/besieges a crippled stuntman, Roy Walker (Lee Pace), who spins a far-fetched yarn about five heroes from the four corners of the world who set out to avenge the various evils inflicted by the nefarious Governor Odious.

Contrasting vividly with the muted tones and realism of the hospital in a 1915 Los Angeles (‘long, long, ago) - the Surrealist story the stuntman weaves (the ‘fall' guy of the title) provides at first an amusing distraction and then a consoling fiction from the pain of existence (Roy has lost his heart's desire to the leading man and wishes to kill himself), before becoming an acceptance of death - that pain is part of life. That to live life is to ‘fall'. The near-death of the little girl, caused by her attempt to steal some morphine for the stuntman (or perhaps herself after she wakes up in the night and witnesses a nurse and doctor having sex), provides Tarsem an opportunity to dazzle the already visually saturated audience with a wonderfully bizarre stream-of-consciousness section (nightmarishly in the style of Czech animator Jan Svankmajer). This accident shocks the stuntman out of his suicidal wallowings, and he now completes his narrative for both of them - the mask of his thinly disguised analogue for his own frustrated line of desire slips completely, as figures from his own narrative (the leading man; his trophy girlfriend) appear in the tale. As with The Wizard of Oz, characters from the framing narrative double-up in disguise in the special world of the story - hospital orderlies, fellow film crew become the larger-than-life band of buccaneers - and Alexandria becomes ‘Dorothy', popping up in the stuntman's story as a mini-version of Roy's ‘blue bandit' alter-ego, a surrogate daughter to his surrogate father. Her presence starts to affect the narrative - a virus from the real world, infecting it with fatality.

A criticism would be that the film is a clear example of style over content. Tarsem seems more focused on creating stunning visuals than a meaningful narrative - and at times it resembles a pop video or expensive advertisement (both of which are in Tarsem's portfolio). Yet stunning visuals are what cinema is best at delivering, and the costumes (designed by Eiko Ishioka) and computer-enhanced sets and settings are spectacular. Tarsem made the film over several years in 18 locations around the world - and part of the fun of the film is trying to identify the locations. In its globe-trotting it's like a Bond film on acid, and indeed at least one of the locations overlaps both wildly different paradigms (the Lake Palace of Udaipur, used in Octopussy). The film is impossibly glamorous - and could be seen as nothing more than an expensive confection, but the performances of the stuntman and the girl provide solid human interest and anchor the narrative in something meaningful. There's echoes of Guillermo del Toro's baroque imagination as well - but the film is easier viewing than the disturbing violence of Pan's Labyrinth, if no less imaginative.

The film ends with a touching montage of early screen-stunts - made all the more astonishing as we realise how dangerous such stunts were. How many stuntmen lost their lives in the name of entertainment, of a more impressive thrill? The film acts on one level as a paean for all stuntmen and women, and for the sheer folly of cinema - which offers consoling fictions to this wounded world. As a post 9/11 fairy tale it perhaps attempts to provide a fabulist band-aid for us 21st Century Humpty Dumptys, and so perhaps the film isn't as trivial as it may appear. David Fincher and Spike Jonze should be applauded for backing such a bold experiment in cinema, with more imagination than a whole multiplex of CGI blockbusters.

Kevan Manwaring

The Fall is now available to rent on DVD

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