The Fall is as cinematic a film as you will ever see. And this is fitting, because The Fall is essentially a love letter to the form—an outpouring of expressive sound, image, space, movement, and color, strewn together in delicately messy bursts and flourishes of filmic passion.
Helmed by Indian director Tarsem (whose only other film, 2000’s The Cell, was also hyper-stylized but ultimately little more), The Fall is set in the early years of cinema—circa 1915—and centers around a paralyzed movie stuntman (Lee Pace of ABC’s Pushing Daisies) who befriends a wide-eyed five-year-old immigrant (Catinca Untaru) who is a patient in the same hospital. The film moves back and forth between this “real” world and the fictional fantasy world of a swashbuckling tale the two conjure up together to help get through their convalescence.
A descendent of films like The Wizard of Oz, Big Fish, and even Pan’s Labyrinth, The Fall reminds us of the power of the moving image to provide both an escape from the harsh realities of life but also a means whereby humans can better understand themselves, and each other. In the “real life” scenes between Pace and Untaru, a partial language barrier makes it difficult for the two to always understand one another (indeed, the young and heavy-accented Untaru is often unintelligible). But when they “escape” to their shared and ongoing narrative fantasy, they achieve a transcendent understanding through the limitless possibilities of imagination.
The title of the film is not some allusion to Eden (though there are some shots and one tree in particular that might invite some such interpretations). Rather, it is a film about literal falls: the physical act of succumbing to gravity. The two main characters are in the hospital because of injuries suffered from falls, and time and time again there are dramatic, slow-mo falling shots in which characters fall into pools, off balconies, off bridges, etc. (reminiscent of the famous “kicked into the abyss” shot in The 300). The film revels in such highly expressive moments of intense action and vivid imagery. Indeed, the film is really just a collection of isolated moments and movements, following the form of a vaudeville revue, evoking the nascent cinema's tendency to be what Tom Gunning called a "cinema of attractions."
Eschewing CGI and digital fall-backs, Tarsem aims to capture the thrill and beauty of actual materiality, manipulated through old-fashioned filmmaking techniques to create transformative flights of fancy. Here again he pays homage to early cinema, where people like D.W. Griffith first realized the expressive potentials of cinematic storytelling: things like parallel and non-linear editing, varying shot lengths, and the ability to play “tricks” on the audience to make physical impossibilities appear possible.
The narrative of The Fall also references early cinema, which focused on episodic spectacle and serialized melodrama. The swashbuckling, globe-trotting adventures of The Fall’s fantasy world reflect the spirit of silent cinema’s first attempts at melodrama: serials like The Perils of Pauline, The Hazards of Helen, and The Exploits of Elaine. Those serials featured exotic locations and villains (often sheiks or Indians) with frequent literal cliffhangers, daring stunts, and other such (yes!) falls. Such early serials inspired later exotic adventures like Tarzan, Indiana Jones and The Mummy—films that were about, at least in part, the magic of cinema itself.
Tarsem has a strong command of the moving image form and a distinctive visual style honed through years of commercial and music video work. His career path mirrors style-centric directors like David Fincher and Spike Jonze, who serve as “presented by” marquee names for this film. The aesthetic of The Fall is a mixture of Dadism, surrealism, and naturalistic exoticism (with stunning location shoots in places like India, Namibia, and South Africa), and Tarsem seems to invoke people like M.C. Esher, Man Ray, Sergei Eisenstein, and Salvador Dali in his evocation of a pre-WWI modernist expressionism.
The result is a trip, to be sure, but one that is more accessible than, say, David Lynch’s Inland Empire (another film that thrills in pushing the boundaries of the cinematic). It isn’t perfect (the acting can at times be a tad too saccharine), but The Fall is certainly one of the most unique films of the year—a cinematic journey that is both thoroughly modern and strikingly classical.