Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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 Post subject: Tarsem: The Fall (2006)
PostPosted: Thu Jun 05, 2008 7:58 pm 
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A film for devotees of bizarre and exquisite imagery

The Fall has an endless series of incredibly exotic and beautiful visuals and deserves to be seen just for that. Tarsem (Singh)'s use of oddly contrasting main characters and costumes recalls Alejandro Jodorovsky, and the mélange of seldom-seen people and places mimics the late-career cinematic working methods of Pier Paolo Pasolini. The trompe l'oeil landscapes-into-faces obviously evoke some of the paintings of Salvador Dali. The director previously made The Cell (2000), a darker film with an equally intense focus on bizarre fantasy and a blurred interface between reality and the visions of the unconscious.

Even Tarsems' two main characters--on whose appeal the success of the frame story depends--are again a study in exotic contrasts. They are a burly, boyishly appealing American stunt man named Roy (Lee Pace) and a preternaturally articulate but heavily accented little Romanian girl, Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), like him injured in a fall (he, off a bridge; she, from an orange tree). They develop an offbeat friendship in a hospital. He tells her stories, which constitute the colorful side of the movie and are also an elaborate allegory or dream-vision about his own life, at least in that the evil ruler he describes, Governor Odius (Daniel Caltagirone) is his real-life love rival, a silent film star named Sinclair--and as time goes on many of the characters in the fantasy stories begin to turn up in the hospital as staff or visitors. Eventually the two realities slip into and out of each other with more and more dizzying regularity.

The present-time setting after all is exotic too, and production designer Ged Clarke's most lavish contribution to the project. It's an early twentieth-century California hospital staffed by Catholic nuns. Lying in his bed there, Roy, the apparently paralyzed stunt man, tells Alexandria the tales of a set of men with revenge wishes toward the evil Odius. One of this band of warriors is Roy. The rest, who may also be manifestations of him, are: an Indian (Jeetu Verma) , an Italian explosives wizard (Robin Smith), a magnificent black ex-slave called Otta Benga (Marcus Wesley), Charles Darwin (Leo Bill), accompanied by his shy, genius pet monkey, Wallace; and (sometimes) a wild-eyed fakir (Julian Bleach) .

Roy's purpose is to use his storytelling, Sheherezade-style, as a cliff-hanging device to coax Alexandria into stealing morphine from the dispensary, with which he intends to commit suicide, though at first she doesn't know that. Nothing is clear and nothing is resolved in the present. Eventually the "real time" events progressively come to seem as surreal as Roy's narratives. It's not clear to me for what purpose these stories were ultimately conceived by Tarsem and his writers Dan Gilroy and Nico Soultanakis, other than to provide the framework for the astonishingly beautiful fantasies, mostly depicting confrontations and battles both spiritual and physical. There is some ugly violence and yet it's all beautiful. Everything is aestheticized. Even blood is gorgeous. Red is a pretty color, after all. Certain landscapes and architectural wonders linger in the mind, though sometimes what happens in them is overshadowed by one's curiosity about what the location was, of the 26 in "over 18 countries" that were used by the patient Tarsem, who took years to make this, and funded it out of his own money. Where were all those pretty pale-blue dwellings that look Moroccan but couldn't be? I kept wondering. Was that actually Hagia Sofia? Where were the whirling dervishes whirling? and so on.

There are many falls; there is much talk of butterflies. One of the film's tour-de-force transitions moves from a butterfly into a landscape in a lepedopteral shape. Darwin's monkey, by the way, is a skillful lepidopterist. Among the astonishing visual tricks, at one point the slave Otta Benga's back is completely filled with long arrows, and he falls over backward and is suspended above ground on them. A wedding in a large spectacular oriental-baroque building is ornamented by whirling dervishes: Tarsem and his cinematographer, Colin Watkinson, have as keen a sense of architecture as of landscape, and every images is beautifully composed. The revengers are at first stuck on a little island but are rescued by a small elephant: they and the elephant are beautiful seen underwater. In front of a palace in the Far East a big red "teardrop" design Talbot Largo lives up to its reputation as "the most beautiful car in the world." A friendly black man delivers ice to the hospital from a tiny truck and teases Alexandria for trying to lick it. (He turns out to be Otta Benga in an earthly form.)

There is more and more and yet it never seems too much because it is all so gorgeous, and because constant returns to Roy and Alexandria brings us back to earth, as in the 1981 Bulgarian film Yo Ho Ho and Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective.. It seems some sequences don't mesh properly. If that's because Alexandria and Roy re-imagine the storyline, images trump logic in an emotionally logical way. However, it's still a pity the story isn't resolved a bit better on either level.

Little Alexandria is appealing and Untaru may become a wonderful adult actress, but her speech is sometimes garbled and hard to follow; some of the dialogue with Ropuy is awkwardly improvised at cross purposes. The latter scenes between the invalid pals become increasingly maudlin, weepy, and sad, and that sadness has already become hard to care about because it's out of focus, and even comic at times.

In the NY Times Nathan Lee off-puttingly declared that "The Fall is a genuine labor of love—and a real bore." I didn't take it that way. It's no more a bore than Jodorovsky. And it has more humanity. But there's no doubt that the audacious and beautiful staging of the fantasy scenes outweighs the narrative value of the movie. The main fantasy costumes are brilliantly conceived by the fashion designer Eiko Ishioka. A "bore" for some, perhaps, this will be a cult classic for others. It has few equals. As a visual stunner it can hardly be too highly rated.

Released in the US May 9, 2008 (111 theaters).

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