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The Fall

Visually Impressive, but Dramatically Inert

The Fall, music video and TV commercial director Tarsem Singh’s self-financed follow-up to his first feature-length film, The Cell, is both a strikingly beautiful film crammed with singularly arresting images and, sadly, a dramatically inert film that exposes Tarsem’s weaknesses as a narrative storyteller. Shot in 28 countries over four years, The Fall premiered at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival. Unsurprisingly, distributors shied away from releasing the film until this year, when Spike Jonze (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich) and David Fincher (Zodiac, Fight Club) stepped in to lend to their names and commercial cachet to Tarsem’s film.

The Fall is set in the early 1920s as the Hollywood movie studios consolidated their hold on the public consciousness as the preeminent form of mass entertainment. Roy Walker (Lee Pace), a stuntman, lies in a Los Angeles hospital, potentially crippled from an on-set accident. Roy’s injury has studio executives obviously worried about a lawsuit, but Roy’s depression has less to do with the accident than with the loss of his girlfriend to a movie star ((Daniel Caltagirone). Despite (or because of) his suicidal tendencies, Walker strikes up an unlikely friendship with a young, Eastern European girl, Alexandria (Catinca Untaru). In the hospital for a broken arm she suffered while picking oranges from a tree, Alexandria sees her stay in the hospital as an idyll from both losing her father to violence and working the orange groves.

Walker first engages Alexandria with a story about her namesake, Alexander the Great, but quickly shifts to an improvised story involving a masked bandit (Pace again) who favors sleeveless vests, wide-brimmed hats, and flowing skirts; Luigi (Robin Smith), a cigar-chomping Italian bomb maker; a sword-wielding, bearded Indian (Jeetu Verma); Otta Benga (Marcus Wesley), a fiercely loyal ex-slave; and Charles Darwin (Leo Bill), the famed naturalist, here depicted as a Dr. Doolittle type who can talk to his pet monkey, while dressed as a Droog from Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ dystopian novel, A Clockwork Orange. The bandit and his men first try to save the bandit’s brother from the evil Governor Odious (Caltagirone) and when that fails, to defeat him by tracking him to his palace. Along the way, the bandit meets and falls in love with the general’s fiancé Evelyn (Justine Waddell).

Unfortunately, The Fall is as arid and empty as the desert landscapes that Tarsem films repeatedly. Tarsem goes as far as returning to the same desert that he used in The Cell. Not content to borrow from his own earlier work for Madonna and R.E.M., Tarsem duplicates two scenes from Ron Fricke’s environmentally-themed documentary, Baraka and the Brothers Quay surreal animations for a dream sequence. And that’s not saying much about the story elements Tarsem borrows from other films (e.g. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Wizard of Oz). Borrowing so much and so often from other artists (and himself) isn’t as much of a problem as Tarsem’s inability to weave an engaging or compelling storyline from Walker’s seemingly hopeless future or Alexandria’s hunger for an escape from the loss of her father and working in the orange groves to help alleviate her family’s dire financial straits.

At best, The Fall’s baroque imagery and meta-textual commentary about storytelling and active readers, makes the two hours spent inside a movie theater bearable (if not much else), but The Fall is too superficial to generate anything beyond cursory post-film discussion. As for Tarsem, while his desire to put his vision on film is commendable for all the effort and time it’s taken him and his collaborators, his strengths aren’t as a feature-length filmmaker. If The Cell and The Fall are any indication, Tarsem is better suited to commercials and music videos, where his skills as a storyteller matter far less than his ability to compose a visually arresting (and ultimately empty) image.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars