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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

The Fall (review)

Spinning Stories

Maybe all you need to know about The Fall is that it’s “presented by” David Fincher and Spike Jonze. You know, those guys who fuck with our brains in the name of entertainment, and we love them for it. And we love them for it because they take movies to new places, expand our ideas about what movies can and should do. Fincher’s Fight Club and Seven, Jonze’s Being John Malkovich and Adaptation… and now this one, Tarsem Singh’s The Fall.
I’m not even sure now, after many days’ pondering this extraordinary, bizarre film, whether it even works. But if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work in a way that other adventurous filmmakers should aspire to. Watching The Fall is a thoroughly unique experience, one that is wildly cinematic in that it never lets you forget you’re watching a movie, and yet one that is so enrapturing that you get lost in it. It’s a Movie, and yet it’s so real, even though what it’s about is the falsity of storytelling. It’s the kind of experience that only the movies can give you, wherein you willingly suspend your disbelief while at the same time recognize the cognitive dissonance that requires. So you can laugh at it — it is quite absurd in places, though only in the literary sense of the word — and cry with it simultaneously.

And there, in how it forces you examine your own reaction to The Movies, and how you digest a movie, is The Fall’s peculiar genius.

As much as I despised Singh’s first film, The Cell, I adore this one. That first one was, to be sure, daring, but it dared in a direction that did not seem worth exploring, at least not how Singh did it: he took us into the head of a serial killer, not in an attempt to explicate such madness, but, it seemed, merely to turn madness into something as cool and distant as the cover of a heavy-metal album. Here, though, Singh — who wrote the script, though much of the movie was improvised, with Dan Gilroy and Nico Soultanakis — is exploring such intriguing and important concepts as Why we tell one another stories and How the imagination of children works. It makes me want to say that The Fall is so much lighter than The Cell, except it kinda isn’t. The overall impression I’m left with, after the film, isn’t one of darkness, except what’s really going on here is dark and grim and sorta brutal.

It’s 1915, and Roy Walker (Lee Pace, who, between this and his recent wonderful turn in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, deserves to be a huge star) is laid up in a Los Angeles hospital with a broken back from which he is not expected to recover. He’s a Hollywood stuntman — one of the first, which drags in all sorts of unspoken themes revolving around the distinction between fantasy and reality and the deliberate deception of fiction — and he was injured during a stunt gone wrong. Plus, on top of that, his girl ran off with the movie’s leading man. So he’s pretty depressed… downright suicidal. But he can’t move from his bed: his legs are paralyzed. So, on a whim, he enlists another patient, young Alexandria (Catinca Untaru, in an astonishingly natural performance), in a scheme to steal him enough morphine pills so he can kill himself. The child has no idea what’s going on, of course — she just knows that Roy tells the most delightful stories, and that she’d do anything for him so that he’ll keep the tales coming.

I want to say, too, that The Fall is unlike any movie I’ve ever seen before, except that it reminds me, just a bit, of The Princess Bride: the outrageous tropes of adventure stories — pirates and revenge and strange and mysterious characters and unlikely plot twists — get sent up here, too, in the story Roy spins for Alexandria. Which we see entirely through her child’s perspective, turning Singh’s worldwide locations — Bali, Italy, Fiji, Prague, China, South America — into primary-colored fantasy lands populated by the familiar faces of the people around her, including her nurses, Roy, and the girl herself. Which makes The Fall just a bit Wizard of Ozish, too.

Even unto the end, the beautiful weirdness of Alexandria’s imaginary Oz — and how she misinterprets things Roy says that seem perfectly plain to us grownups — keeps smacking up against the harsh reality of Roy’s ulterior motives so that we almost don’t know what we’re “supposed” to feel. And that’s a good thing: because for all its patent artificiality, there’s something of the found-object about The Fall, as if it had sprung whole cloth from the forehead of some minor demigod who may be, like Roy is with Alexandria, playing tricks on us, and yet wants to delight us at the same time. And still we don’t care, because the story alone is worth it.


MPAA: rated R for some violent images

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
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  • Wow. Sounds amazing. Thanks for the heads-up!

  • Do you watch “Pushing Daisies” MaryAnn? Lee Pace is fantastic as the lead on that show as well.

  • MaryAnn

    No, I haven’t seen that show. If I’d known Pace was in it, I would have been watching from the beginning. I’m gonna have to catch up on DVD…

  • Sonia

    I have been dying to see this movie. And I agree, Pushing Daisies is well worth the watch.

  • Paula

    I saw The Fall yesterday and LOVED it. I knew Mary Ann would love it too — it’s right up her alley. :) So I came here to see if she had a review or if not, to recommend it to her.

    I’m not suprised though that she did see it and loved it as much as I did. :)

    Unfortunately there seems to be no publicity push for it at all and I guess it will fall through the cracks until it reappears on DVD. But the visuals are absolutely gorgeous so if anyone who hasn’t seen this has a chance to view it on the big screen — do so! (The emotional/character part of the story works as well as the visuals — it’s not just eye candy.)

  • I have this on my short list to see in the upcoming week. It’s playing at the best independent theater in Boston so that’s always a bonus. I didn’t like the Cell either (too gross/creepy–serial killer stuff is not my thing). And Lee Pace is adorable and fantastic in the delightful Pushing Daisies (well worth catching up on this summer and watching in the fall).

  • Amy S.

    ps. on the publicity. It’s very indie and I got an invite to a preview screening but was unable to attend unfortunately. They don’t even set about as many press screenings as they used to.

  • Barry

    Wonderful movie but a real sleeper (as in un-advertised!) Academy Award quality in many categories. Don’t miss it

  • A Guy

    Good Lord this movie’s boring. The “real” scenes between the girl and the stuntman are the best thing about it. The girl is very sweet and the director was clearly prodding her from off-camera rather than relying on rigidly scripted dialogue. Very nice. But the fantasy scenes are just savagely dull. Yes, they are beautiful to look at; and if that’s enough for you, more power to you.

    I can’t remember the last time I was so fired up after seeing the preview, only to be so disappointed after seeing the movie.

  • headneep

    What a wonderful film! I saw it last night. Was thinking of waiting for the dvd but so far there’s been no announcement of a dvd release and the film’s obscure enough that it might never get one (it happens; one of my favorites — “Photographing Fairies” — has never had a Region 1 dvd release, and it kills me).

    While watching the movie I kept thinking Lee Pace looked vaguely familiar. I’m glad I read this thread because you mentioned that he’d been in “Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day” (which I also loved). As soon as I read that it all came back. I could picture in my (feeble) memory his appearance in that one.

    And thanks to the enthusiastic mention in this thread of the show “Pushing Daisies” I’ve just added it to my Netflix queue. Imdb says it’s release date is September 16th.

  • Scott P

    This movie came & went from the only indie movie in my city before I had the chance to see it. Darn it. Hope they put it out on DVD before year-end.

    Pushing Daisies is one of the best shows on the tube.

  • Pharlain

    This movie was beautiful. I’m fascinated with storytelling in all its forms and this was an excellent insight into myth.

    Lee Pace is one of those phenomenal actors (I developed a huge crush on him in Wonderfalls) who really sneaks up on you. He’s thoroughly likable so you enjoy his screentime and he’s also incredibly natural. so much so that you almost miss what an incredible acting force he is. Rent Solider’s Girl, his performance in that was so heartbreaking…. In my eyes it truly surpassed many oscar winning performances.

  • Sara

    Just saw this film…it wasn’t clear to me if it was actually being shot in all these locations (with all that is done in films today, digitally and otherwise) but this is the real thing and knowing that ahead of time is critical, I think. Amazing, actually.
    The interactions between Roy and Alexandria are wonderful and I wish there had been a bit more of this. I wonder, also, MaryAnn (would like your thoughts on this) if it would have helped if we had known a bit more of what was actually happening early on. (I’m thinking in terms of the stuntman loses girl to leading man part.)There is always the fine line of leading the reader or viewer, giving them no room, or not giving them enough structure. Your thoughts?
    Great sequence when Roy asks Alexandria to touch his toes but not to tell him which one. This movie does show what fiction can do, especially with narrators who aren’t reliable. Typically readers and viewers want reliable narrators and get pissed off if they since this isn’t the case. That will probably bother many people (who are used to very straight forward plots, etc.) but the unreliability of both Roy and Alexandria (in terms of their own motives, their individual imaginings) worked in a way I won’t be likely to forget anytime soon. Best parts to me involved Alexandria’s interaction with Roy and her interest in him which later turns into a literal salvation for him. This almost gets lost in all the fantastic scenery but to me was the clincher.

  • MaryAnn

    if it would have helped if we had known a bit more of what was actually happening early on

    Helped in what way? What did you feel was lacking?

  • Sara

    I would have put the scene connected with the movie-making–the actors, girlfriend,those involved in the settlement–at the hospital at an earlier point. I thought that came too late in the film. More of a timing issue to me than anything. No, you don’t want to spell everything out for your viewers/readers, but introducing significant characters early on can be helpful (and underlies their significance.) Otherwise, it can become confusing. I figured out what was going on, but would rather have had the information, seen the characters (perhaps even known more about them–as opposed to so much focus on cinematic scenery (which clearly was a strongpoint). Point being, there was much more going on between Roy and Alexandria than, say, between the little boy and his grandfather in Princess Bride. The first included a major plot, involving depression, trickery (via story), breaking into the dispensary for morphine, attempted suicide–in the Princess Bride (and those more like it) this wasn’t the case so the grandfather/grandson part could take a backseat to the “tale” and most certainly should take a backseat to the “tale.” While the cinematography was spectacular I would have liked more story (in the real life part)and I would liked for the movie folks to have been introduced much earlier. (They were too important to introduce so late (I thought.) In fairness to the viewer (me.) Make sense? (If I were writing the story/screenplay, I would have written that significant part in much earlier.) In working on some of my own writing, in studio, I’ve been called down for introducing significant characters too late and I can see why now.

  • Sara

    In the Wizard of Oz, the people who will be in Oz (in another form and story) are introduced at the beginning, not the middle, or near the end.
    Again, timing to me. Liked the film though, but learned from it myself, too, which is all to the good.

  • Sara

    MaryAnn, Your thoughts re: my comments above (two posts) in response to your questions to me?
    Thanks!

  • MaryAnn

    Point being, there was much more going on between Roy and Alexandria than, say, between the little boy and his grandfather in Princess Bride.

    But the “why” of the relationship between Roy and the girl is part of the suspense of the story: revealing all of it early on would spoil that. You’re meant to be a little confused about them — you’re meant to wonder what’s going on. It’s not a bug: it’s a feature.

  • Sara

    Yes, I know that–re: the why of the relationship between Roy and the girl. Still, I think, considering the reality part that was so significant, even from the beginning, it would have been helpful to introduce the “Hollywood” people earlier (it would even help in seeing the real people in the story people as Roy spins his yarn)–I know you’re meant to wonder what’s going on but the Hollywood characters (at least to me) were very significant and needed to come in earlier for the viewer. Why do you think that would have ruined the suspense? I don’t think it would have. Again, I saw it as a timing issue (and those are significant) and again, I thought the movie was good. For many people when you have two unreliable narrators (which we basically had and that’s OK–interesting even) that in itself is a challenge…so bring in those other characters earlier so we can see them, know them. Complex is good, but not complication. I’d have opted for keeping the complexity but lessening the complications. Makes sense to you?

  • Sara

    MA, for example, I’d call the movie, Adaptation complex but wouldn’t call it complicated. Thought the timing there (for the viewer) was right on.

  • Sara

    BTW, (I can’t seem to get my posts into “one”–which is complicating things I know:)
    Did order your book The Totally Geek Guide to the Princess Bride and love it–am passing it around to family and friends who spout out lines from the movie also!

  • MaryAnn

    I can’t seem to get my posts into “one”

    What kind of problem are you having? You just keep typing, and when your done, you hit “post” — it’s pretty straightforward.

    Complex is good, but not complication.

    I guess I don’t see anything in *The Fall* as unnecessarily complicated.

  • Sara

    MA,
    No problems except that I wrote three posts when I could have written one…it was a joke, really, what I said.
    Well, you see it differently, then, I would have brought the movie star folks (who arrived at the hospital) into the movie much earlier on–no, not at the beginning, but not as far along in the movie as they appeared. Those characters were too important. It would be like somehow (in the Wizard of Oz) presenting the farmhands who were the Tinman, the Scarecrow, the Lion, the Witch, the Wizard, (the actual people in Dorothy’s life) somewhere in the middle of the Oz esperience, as opposed to knowing who was who earlier on. That’s all.

  • MaryAnn

    it was a joke, really, what I said.

    Ah, okay. I’m just always concerned that something isn’t working here the way that it should.

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