blank'/> Cinema Reviews: The Fall - Languid artifice till an emotionally grueling end

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Fall - Languid artifice till an emotionally grueling end

The Fall (2006) is sadly a film which only becomes engaging and emotionally satisfying in it's last quarter.

Tarsem (Singh), the mononymous director of this film, is the man responsible for the poorly scripted, acted but lavishly beautiful The Cell starring Jennifer Lopez and Vincent D'Onofrio.

Like that film, The Fall is also elaborately designed; with a gorgeous primary color scheme for the Bandit characters, and clever visual invention; such as the moment when a betraying Preist's face dissolves into a desert landscape with land marks arranged to mirror his features exactly. One feels however that not nearly as much effort and thought went into the design of The Fall as compared to the The Cell, where nearly every moment inside the killers head was filled with dazzling imagery; near bursting at the seams with 'wow' moments, whether macabre or beautiful.

"Perhaps more effort was put into the story; the drama", you ask? Yes, perhaps, but sadly the first two quarters of the film feature rather dull and mawkish moments between a the young protagonist and a stunt man, and a really tepid telling of a story.

The plot deals with a young Romanian girl and an American stunt man, both recovering in a 1920's Los Angeles hospital, from falls they suffered. The girl, Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), has a broken arm from a fall in an orange orchard, and the man, Roy Walker (Lee Pace) has lost the use of his legs. The details of Roy's fall are pertinent to both the story and his mental state:on the set of the film in question, Roy lost his girlfriend to the lead actor, and in attempting to perform a stunt where he would jump from a railway bridge onto a horse, both he and horse end up in the river (In a stunning sepia-tinged opening scene played in slow motion, but unfortunately uses Ludwig van Beethoven's 'Symphony N° 7 in a Major OP.92 - which I cannot listen to now without thinking of the end of Gaspar Noe's Irreversible) In the hospital he and Alexandria form an unlikely friendship, where in exchange for a story: five disparate bandits in search of revenge on a corrupt provincial governor; Roy, deeply depressed, convinces Alexandria to steal a fatal dose of morphine for him.

It is this negotiation, which forms the main thrust of the movie, which lets everything down. The tale Roy tells starts out promisingly enough: imagined sequences, seen in Alexandria's mind, where people from the real world become characters in the story (With even Roy as the principal Black bandit). All five bandits, including a fictionalized Charles Darwin (Leo Bill), are properly motivated against the governor, banished from the kingdom to an island. They escape, and a mystic who emerges from the bowels of a burning tree joins them in their quest (A great scene). Disappointingly, from that point on, the tale descends into slow moving sequences with no tension (The bandits go here, they go there, capture a nun, no-one makes any great attempt to stop them, we are left in no doubt they will succeed...), and self-conscious, stylized acting from Lee Pace in the romantic moments which I found off-putting, rather than I assume the intended humorous, self-aware effect. These story sequences could have had the whimsy, fun and adventure of Terry Gilliam's much more successful, (Forget the critics or the box office - the film is great) The Adventures of Baron M√ľnchhausen, instead the bandits lack any special attributes which might make them interesting, and the tale is dull.

The interactions between Roy and Alexandria are the second weakest link in this section: the debut appearance of Catinca Untaru does not endear; her constant interruptions over Lee Pace ensure these scenes looks improvised (Which I'm certain they were, the intention probably being to make them seem more natural; as children do interrupt people - well fine, but it's also bloody annoying when they do that! Which is precisely the effect achieved by this device), unpolished and un-engaging. Because of this there are no dynamics in their scenes together, no followable progression in the tightening of their relationship; they don't grow closer so much as keep yammering at each other.

All of this however, can be largely forgiven for the extremely satisfying - but grueling - last quarter of the film. Roy flips out after his attempted suicide is thwarted by morphine pills Alexandria got from a nieghbouring patient - evidently the Doctors were giving the man placebos - so Alexandria steals into the dispensary to obtain more pills for Roy (Unaware at all times that he wants to kill himself). She falls, and here Tarsem's skills finally come to the fore: instead of Alexandria hitting the floor, Roy as the masked bandit falls to the floor, missing a leg, a false leg falls after him and shatters on the ground. We then cut to several vignettes of Roy as masked bandit, Roy as a gladiator, Roy as a knight, all having their legs dismembered. The sequence represents the presumably unconscious Alexandria, tumbling through her own mind, her imagination and memories overlapping to form associations between real life and the story; her Father's death and their house burning down; her fall from the orange tree. As clunky as some of the ideas sound, the sequence is genuinely distressing, especially in contrast to the very light-hearted first two thirds of the film. Tension, and thus our interest, finally enter the film. We are even treated to some dark stop motion animation as Alexandria imagines the Doctor's operating on her her fractured skull, and she hears Roy being chastised by the Medical staff for his abuse of her trust. This is the kind of visual detail and audio layering that made The Cell so engaging.

When Alexandria awakes, Roy is by her side, and through his subsequent abuse of the continuing story, she must finally confront the distressed mind that has been lurking behind Roy's outward shows of friendship. Roy is drunk, and as he continues the story, he starts killing off all the bandits in increasingly distressing ways, and despite Alexandria's plees for him to stop Roy continues, before finally his character, the Black Bandit, is the only one left to confront the governor. The scene is disturbing because we know and understand why Roy is acting like this; a heart broken man, depressed and fixated with death; but we are also aware that Alexandria does not understand, and for Roy to be exposing her to this very adult and dark behavior appalls us. We worry for her and while concerned for Roy, morally we demand him to stop torturing this poor child. It is this kind of tension and complexity that is lacking in almost every other frame of the film.

After having the Black Bandit brutally beaten up by the governor, and the character essentially give up on trying to fight back, Roy nearly has him drowned. In doing so he breaks all of Alexandria's childhood illusions of honor and justice, and indeed, her impressions of Roy himself. Again, it is this traumatizing of Alexandria, and exposure to adult concepts entirely inappropriate to her age - from an adult who should know better - which deeply moves and conflicts us as viewers. Finally Roy listens to Alexandria's pleas to let the Black Bandit live, and in doing so he decides to live as well, redeeming himself.

Almost all of the tepid, elaborate puffery from earlier is worth having sat through for this scene, and I wish more films could have as many complex ideas, moral quandaries and emotions as there are in this scene. It is deeply satisfying as an audience member.

Overall, a beautiful film, but not as beautiful as The Cell; a great ending but a shallow first two-thirds.

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