Directed by Tarsem Singh (as Tarsem)
The Fall is all about the power of the image. Don’t believe me? Watch that opening sequence again. Note how the Beethoven music wraps around each shot. Pay attention to the trestle and the train. Watch the light glance off the woman’s heart-shaped locket, the locket you’ll see again.
It’s all about the image, and, like Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen, and Don Juan DeMarco, it’s all about story-telling.
The movie is set in 1920’s LA, in a Catholic charity hospital. Alexandria, a little Persian immigrant girl, is recovering from a broken arm. Because she is otherwise healthy, she has the run of the place and knows everyone from the priest and the nurses to the man who delivers the ice. She meets Roy, a stunt man in the fledgling movie business who was injured and probably permanently paralyzed when a stunt went wrong.
Roy starts making up stories to entertain Alexandria, and the stories play out before us in vivid, candy-coated colors, a different palette than the creamy peach, cream and olive tones of the hospital scenes. Alexandria is a fierce editor—she doesn’t want a pirate story, she says, and the five story characters on a deserted island immediately become bandits—and soon she and Roy are collaborating, weaving characters from hospital life into the “epic” tale Roy has set.
Alexandria is an innocent, so she is unaware of the depths of Roy’s despair, and his hidden purpose in befriending her.
I think the movie spends about half the time in 1920’s hospital world. These scenes evoke a time and place without the fussy attention to period detail you sometimes see. As we watch Alexandria’s peregrinations we begin to understand more about her. Meanwhile, Roy’s story grows increasingly darker.
In an early scene Alexandria, who is not a Catholic, brings Roy a communion wafer she took from the chapel. Roy asks her if she is trying to save his soul (a word five-year-old Alexandria doesn’t even know). The question is playful but it resonates through the rest of the movie. Souls are, in fact, at stake here.
Tarsem, the director, is best-known for music videos, which might explain how he knew about all the fabulous locations he uses. He also directed one of the most beautiful and most awful movies I ever sat through—The Cell, with Jennifer Lopez. Roger Ebert described The Cell as “a Vogue photo-shoot in hell.” In The Fall, Tarsem doesn’t feel the need to junk up his intimate story with sadistic serial killers and science-fictional bodysuits. He just shows us what happens.
The movie is beautiful, but the relationship between Roy and Alexandria grabs us and holds us. Pace’s work here is more layered than his turn as the magical pie-maker on Pushing Daisies, and Untaru—she is a little miracle. Her genuineness saves the film’s sentimentality from becoming gummy.
Days later, though, it’s the images I remember. I remember a keyhole in a door creating a camera oscura, Alexandria’s paper mask and the mask of the blue bandit. I remember the trestle, the train, the heart-shaped locket, and mostly I remember the elephant, swimming, swimming through the brilliant blue water as it carries our five heroes off the deserted island and into the heart of our story.