Falling in love again
Big screen cinema is for spectacle. For Avenging super heroes and three-dimensional stuff being thrown at you by two-dimensional characters. It’s fun and makes a lot of money and is all ok by me. Then there are films that are crafted in dedication to a singular vision, using every cinema reference. And these films can still throw colour and movement at you until you can’t breathe for the beauty of it.
This was The Fall.
I’d not heard of it until approximately a second ago and viewed it upon on recommendation (thanks). It was made in 2006 by Tarsem and is not to be confused with The Fall TV series. It’s a tragi-comic Eastern/Western saga of global proportions. It is self-consciously melodramatic and not embarrassed by it. It uses stop motion and all sorts of visual and film making tricks successfully, even if lavishly, and it is satisfying (unlike say Tank Girl, which escapes into animation). Its cinematography saturates you until you can feel and taste it. And yet, it’s just about how two people who form a bond through the ‘healing power’ of storytelling and what comes of this. And it is in no way stereotypical, except when it is deliberately so.
That kid’ll go far
What I loved about this film is the relationship between Roy Walker (Lee Pace) an injured film stuntman and Alexandria (Catinca Untaru) a precocious immigrant kid with a broken arm. Untaru is ah-maz-ing. She steals the film from Pace, whose Roy is remarkable anyway. It makes the rest of Pace’s career look easy in comparison. (I liked his narration, his voice has something of Jim Morrison about it. Rather than read 60s spoken word poetry though, Pace could read audio books or meditation recordings. Or anything really:)
I notice that critics and fans are focused on the colour and settings of the film. It’s true, they are glorious, but they’re a distraction, a bit like what our storyteller says:
Roy Walker: That story was just a trick to get you to do something for me.
The visuals are the trick to pull the viewer in, but they’re not the point. Lots of people don’t get symbolism or don’t like allegory, but Tarsem is doing a lot and making it look beautiful. His film is about how stories change you internally, how the stories you tell are the map of your life. He also shows us that stories are shared and are influenced internally and externally.
The Fall too, is about how the story you tell is not always the one you intended, even if you think you’re the one doing all the directing. So, yes the director plays with all the tropes, they’re easily identifiable and conveniently listed. But this is not just some clever/arty commentary on the history of cinematic storytelling. It’s that and more. Each one of the falls in this film happens so Roy and Alexandria can rise again, eventually, together.
Roy, in the flicker business, bored in hospital, finds immediate outlet in storytelling.
Roy Walker: You should ask someone else. There’s no happy ending with me.
Alexandria: I still want to hear it.
Roy narrates the story, but it’s Alexandria who imagines it for us and everything in it is her imagination, which is informed by her reality. Roy sets his narrative as a Western, and says Indian and Squaw while she imagines a warrior from India and his wife. Roy’s story, starts out as a lie, a manipulation and sometimes a punishment, but as this girl continues to weave her remarkable Alexandria-ness on him, his story changes. But the misunderstandings go two ways, she asks if his friend is a pirate and Roy thinks she means she wants a pirate story. In the end, both fight for control of the story. Roy stops the narrative, and Alexandria restarts it, and her indomitable spirit transforms the ending he’d imagined.
Alexandria: Why are you killing everybody? Why are you making everybody die?
Roy Walker: It’s my story.
Alexandria: Mine, too.
Although I picked what would happen to Alexandria, I didn’t expect the effect this had on me. Roy abandons control of the story to Alexandria because when you tell someone a story it becomes theirs too. This is the talking cure, so she shares responsibility for the characters he created and she pictures, while he takes responsibility for what happens to Alexandria.
The magic of this film is that the main character doesn’t know what she’s doing with Roy, mostly, but Alexandria does ‘save his soul.’ Pace’s performance is all about how his Roy responds to and changes with, Untaru’s natural misunderstandings and unscripted responses as Alexandria. Their chemistry is the best thing about this film. They are astounding together.
Her English language skills change the story and Roy’s life, just as her ‘real’ misunderstandings dictate to the director, who takes his cues from the abilities and limits of his actors. Tarsem keeps all the repeated lines, all the hesitations and speaking over each other that happens in natural conversations. Roy, especially, works hard to communicate indirectly. He deliberately skirts around what he really wants, because if Alexandria understood, she would not help him. But Alexandria does this too, she lies to Roy about the test he set her, as well as to the hospital staff:
Doctor: [suspicious Alexandria is not translating correctly for her mother] Alexandria, did she just ask me a question?
Alexandria: No, it’s just how we talk.
Thus, she and Roy are alike in how they use and misuse language. Their gibberish is often deliberate. The misunderstandings help reinforce the symbolism, which represents the eventual effect of Alexandria on Roy. It is especially the case in this exchange:
Alexandria: What mean that?
Roy Walker: The Eucharist.
Roy Walker: The Eucharist. The thing you gave me. It’s a… it saves your soul.
Alexandria: Hmm? The thing I give you… what?
Roy Walker: The little piece of bread that you just gave me. It saves your soul.
Alexandria: What? What? *What*?
Another issue at the heart of the film is that all the important motivations and issues Roy faces happen at the edges of Alexandria’s awareness. They only become overt in the story he tells, when he faces the consequences of what he was trying to do. Roy then uses the story to explain he was never a hero. Meanwhile, Alexandria, either confusing her language, or confusing his story with life, begs for the life of the Bandit and Roy. In return for the pain he has caused Alexandria, Roy has no choice but to change the narrative in both cases. While he can retcon his story and change his Bandit from Spanish to French, and while the makers of the silent Western heist film he was in can replace the stunt that nearly killed him, he can’t retcon his life. In the end, we are unsure whether Alexandria understands the significance of this but he makes a promise and he keeps it.
If you love storytelling, just see it. It’s worth it.