2006 was a terrific year for movies. And, oddly enough, a terrific year for movies that utilized narratives within narratives. Think the unfinished book in The Fountain, or the fantastic trials in Pan’s Labyrinth, or the epic story in The Fall –
Wait, what’s The Fall? I get asked that just about every time I’ve mentioned it — even to legitimate “movaie types.” Rarely have I encountered a movie of this quality that’s known by less people. The Fall is a movie about Alexandria, a little girl who strikes up a friendship with a silent-movie stuntman while the two of them are hospitalized together. Roy (the stuntman) begins to tell her an epic tale, to her delight. Soon, though, it becomes obvious that his motives for doing so aren’t pure at all.
It also might be the most underrated movie of all time. Maybe.
Let’s start at the top. The mad genius behind this movie goes by the compact name Tarsem. If you want to use his last name, it’s Tarsem Singh. Coming from a background of music videos, he shot this movie over a period of four years in 18 different countries. It sounds like a ton of effort — and it is — but every single frame of the movie shows the results. You’ve likely never seen a movie like it.
Also, for those of you looking for a break from the post-processed look our movies have these days, most of the incredible vistas in the film are 100% real.
Many of the sequences in the fantasy narrative are, without a doubt, stunning. A man rides across a desert, backed by an orange dune. A poisoned map creates cartographic tattoos on the mystic who eats it. A dead brother’s blood stains a 70-foot white banner bright red. The mythology and imagery woven into The Fall’s meta-narrative is some of the most distinctive, memorable stuff I’ve seen in a long time.
Tarsem Singh, as you might guess from his name, isn’t from around here. Meaning that — to this American’s eyes — his particular brand of mythology feels wonderfully fresh. I mentioned Pan’s Labyrinth earlier, and The Fall feels similarly distinctive, even though the cast of characters features some types you’ve heard of before.
Since The Fall, he’s gone on to direct the (presumably) lesser films Immortals and Mirror, Mirror. While I haven’t seen them, the trailers and feedback for those projects indicate his eye is as good as ever, but his storytelling chops have been swallowed up by the Hollywood machine.
Though, in fairness, holy crap.
In fact, that brings me to one of the main criticisms leveled against The Fall at the time of its release. A fair amount of people claimed The Fall was an incredible spectacle, but the story it provided wasn’t up to snuff. Personally, I think that’s a load of crap. I can see thinking that the meta-narrative that Roy tells Alexandria lacks propulsion, especially at its start. Sure. The point of that story, though, isn’t to be particularly suspenseful or compelling. It’s primarily there as a window into Alexandria’s thoughts and imagination.
One of The Fall‘s great delights is seeing the story Roy tells, but filtered through Alexandria’s mind. When he describes an “Indian,” meaning the kind cowboys fight, she pictures an “Indian,” as in someone from India. The movie constantly finds new, inventive, and surprisingly honest ways to render the child’s perspective first and foremost.
This is a device I see often… the view of the child — but rarely (never?) has it felt as honest and essential as in this particular movie. Alexandria doesn’t feel like a character in a movie. She doesn’t feel like a facade put on by an actress. She truly and always feels like a real little girl caught in a situation she cannot fully contextualize.
For that, you have to look to Catinca Untaru.
According to Tarsem, he knew the movie had to go into production as soon as he met little Catinca. He is absolutely right on that count. Looking at the breadth of what she accomplishes in the film, it’s impossible to imagine a different child in the role, and from everything I’ve seen and heard it’s because she is precisely that character she’s playing.
It’s the little things that really bring Alexandria to life. The way she gnaws on her cast. Her difficulty understanding English from time to time. Her halting attempts to articulate her thoughts in ways the adults can understand.
Tarsem and his crew, frankly, did a hell of a job. It’s hard enough to corral kids in real life; I can’t imagine guiding this little girl through a dramatically coherent performance in a movie of this complexity and maturity.
Not that the effort put in by Tarsem should diminish Catinca’s contributions to the final film. To the contrary, her spirit and honesty elevate it to a status it couldn’t possibly achieve with a more conventional performance at its center.
Now, most of the good people who’ve seen the movie quickly point out Catinca’s wonderful performance, but not as many noticed the effort from her co-star, Lee Pace.
Pace had the unenviable task of playing a bedridden guy who manipulates a little girl into stealing him some painkillers, and making the character sympathetic instead of just coming off like huge jerk. He walks this line with an impressive ease.
The really astonishing part of his turn in the movie, though, is that he more than almost anybody else on the project was responsible for coaching Catinca through her acting beats. According to an interview I saw once upon a time, he basically had to make his performance as real as possible. The more authentic he was, the better she became.
Of course, Lee Pace has been a favorite of mine since 2007. That was the year he totally rocked it as the lead in the tragically short-lived Pushing Daisies. Absolutely no one else would have so successfully rendered the sweet, endlessly adorable Ned the Pie-Maker in that show. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine a better take on The Fall‘s wounded, manipulative Roy.
While we’re at it, he’s great as a racist, wonderfully articulate Congressman in Lincoln, and presumably he’ll be good when he shows up again in the next Hobbit (all he did in the first was ride a moose).
Lee Pace, ladies and gents, is one of those actors who really, really should start getting more attention than he has so far. Which makes him a perfect fit for The Fall, actually.
Oh, hey! We’re back on topic. Cool.
A quick jaunt to BoxOfficeMojo.com showed that The Fall made less than $3 million domestically. That’s less than a tenth of what Pan’s Labyrinth made. It’s less than a third of what The Fountain made. Additionally, as I mentioned earlier, people have at least HEARD of those movies, even if they didn’t see them or didn’t care for them.
You’ll notice I keep comparing this movie to polarizing, visionary pieces. There’s no other company that suits The Fall better. I’ve praised its technical virtues plenty — and I could go on — but this is more than a well-made, artistic film. It’s a Great Movie.
Most movies about stories come from the perspective that stories are wonderful ways to use an active mind. That they help us conquer fear, spread love, and touch the hearts of millions. The Fall reminds us that stories can also be used to manipulate. They get in our heads and alter our perceptions. In the hands of a dishonest narrator, they can become weapons.
True healing can only come from another person. From each other. In this movie, no matter how compelling a story may be, the most important thing about it is the relationships between the people it connects. Of course, that’s not to say that stories aren’t important. In fact, The Fall sees them as so powerful that the mere act of telling one becomes a responsibility. In one of the more profound moments in The Fall, Roy’s anger infects the narrative; the characters Alexandria’s grown to love suffer senselessly. She pleads with him to stop.
“It’s my story!” Roy responds.
“Mine too,” comes Alexandria’s reply.
You really oughta think about making it yours, too.