Today a friend told me about a movie called The Fall, which she said was “perhaps not the best movie on the planet, but it is hands down the prettiest.” So I googled it and discovered that The Fall is described as a “vanity project” by director Tarsem Singh, who spent millions of his own dollars and four years of work creating it. Rather than employ computer generation technology for special effects, Tarsem (he doesn’t use his last name) insisted on doing everything the old-fashioned way. That means that to film a single one-second shot of the characters walking along the Great Wall of China, the actors and crew actually went to China.
That’s how I decided that, great or not, The Fall was a movie I needed to see. So I watched it. And it is like no other movie on earth.
Well, that’s not necessarily true. Like The Wizard of Oz, it employs two worlds, a real world and a fantasy world, populated by the same actors who, in fantasy land, don masks, mustaches, and outlandish personae. Like The Princess Bride, it is a swashbuckling tail of a bandit seeking to claim the love of his life from an evil lord. That is where is all comparisons end. If The Princess Bride were a symphony by Dvořák, The Fall would be by Mahler; if The Princess Bride were Much Ado About Nothing, The Fall would be The Tempest and King Lear. Combined.
The movie contains a story. A young girl (Romanian youngster Catinca Untaru, aged 5-9 while the film was made) is stuck in a hospital in the American west sometime around 1910. Another patient is Roy, a stunt man in the moving pictures industry who has become paralyzed on the job. Roy begins telling the little girl a story. He’s just trying to befriend her so she will steal morphine pills for him. He does not care about the story, really, especially not after his girlfriend sends word that she has moved on to a man who can still walk. In fact, Roy is just popping pills until the time is ripe for suicide.
The story he tells the girl is, at first, altogether different. An evil “Governor Odious” gives six different men (including Charles Darwin, in an outrageous fur coat) reason to want him dead. They are all exiled on a desert island together, where they plot to kill the Governor and escape to land on the back of a swimming elephant. Along the way they encounter the Governor’s bride-to-be, who, naturally, falls in love with one of the bandits.
All this takes place against a jaw-dropping backdrop of real places. The Fall was filmed in 26 countries, or something like that. The desert island scenes were shot in Fiji. Governor Odious’ palace is in India. A desert which traps Alexander the Great (yes, really) is in Namibia. On the way they cross the Great Wall and traipse across various other extraordinary corners of the earth, including an unbelievable desert oasis, a sort of reverse Tower of Babel with infinite staircases descending into a pit, and a community of Turkish dervishes. Every so often there’s a happy recognition: “Oh, look! It’s Prague!”
But this is not a movie about bandits and adventure. There are no catchy one-liners like in The Princess Bride; indeed there’s almost no dialogue at all. This is a movie about the story. The themes are imagination, memory, fantasy, and dreamscapes. Where do they come from anyway? How are they formed? How do we inhabit them?
The Fall, in parts, actually feels like a dream. That is because although Roy is narrating the story, the little girl’s imagination is supplying the visuals: we are very firmly not in a fantasy world of Roy’s but inside his listener’s head. As we meet some of the characters she comments, “I like them.” Gradually the bandits all begin to look like people she knows. Later, she starts to dislike the chain of events, so she jumps in the tale too. In the turning point of the film, she begs Roy not to kill off a character and he defends his right to kill off anyone: “It’s my story.” She replies: “Mine too.”
And so more and more improbable things happen; at first we accept them because they are whimsical and wonderful and entertaining and Roy’s a good storyteller. Then we accept them because the stakes keep getting higher. Finally the real world and the fantasy grow close, too close, far too close, and we accept it because the pace is like a runaway train and the emotional impact is like you’re standing on the tracks.
So what is The Fall? It is well-acted, or at least accurately acted (that is to say, overacted when overacting is required). It is absolutely fantastically beautiful. It has a rather good soundtrack. Tarsem Singh directs like a man possessed, which he had to be to spend four years and his savings on this. The Fall is a huge pleasure to watch, an emotional rollercoaster and so mentally stimulating that I’ve written this in less time than it took to watch the movie, immediately after watching the movie.
But that doesn’t answer the question. What is The Fall? It is a story about stories. It is the legend of love, longing and mortality, an emblem of the need all human beings have to narrate their interiors. It is imagination projected without filter, fantasy uninhibited, the innermost emotional narrative drawn out of doors. I have finally found apt comparisons for this film. It is like The Tempest, in which Prospero can decide fates with his magic staff, which he ultimately casts away. It is like the Tim O’Brien novels Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried, the latter of which aims to prove, as The Fall does, that you really can save a life with a story. Sure, The Fall is indulgent. But so are all dreams.