Although he made his feature debut with The Cell in 2000, Tarsem has been working as director of commercials and music videos since the mid-90s and this is clearly visible in the lavish credit sequence that opens his second, self-funded effort The Fall. Images of figures jumping heroically from horses and trains in slow motion, wonderfully cinematic as they may be, would also fit perfectly in adverts for Marlboro or Nike. To say that the film focuses on style over substance is not far removed from the truth and even the more emotionally engaging scenes only serve to highlight his undeniable talent as a visual artist.
The Fall (based on the 1981 Bulgarian film Yo Ho Ho) is set in Los Angeles circa 1915, at a time when action-adventure films are beginning to take their grip on Hollywood, bringing with them the ever-increasing dangers of precarious stunts. A victim of such hazards, stuntman Roy Walker is bed-ridden in a hospital, unable to feel his legs and heartbroken after his girlfriend dumped him for a suave film star. Surrounded by hypochondriacs and old-timers with removable dentures, his only relief comes in the form of Alexandria, a young immigrant girl who fell from a tree while picking oranges (excellently played by the young Catinca Untaru, who allegedly spoke no English prior to filming). Finding friendship through shared mischievousness, the pair escape daily banality through the stories that Roy invents for Alexandria, in particular a vivid account of five warriors who set out across a mythical landscape, each with a personal vendetta to settle with a fascist emperor.
As one would expect from a director with such visual flair, the film’s imagery is truly breathtaking. Everything from the vast scenery to the flamboyant costumes is meticulously captured, with sporadic fighting scenes being more akin to choreographed dance than to the video-game-influenced bouts seen so frequently in cinema today. There’s also a fantastic stop-motion animation sequence, which is used to depict the operation Alexandria has to undergo following a fall. Sequences such as this add to the sense of surrealist fantasy as well as to the escapist desires that dominate the film.
However, as engaging as the film’s visual elements may be, the script (co-written by Tarsem with Nico Soultanakis and Dan Gilroy) varies far too much in tone and style to fully engage, veering between emotional indifference and full-on melodrama. Cutting between the fictive and real worlds, the film slowly meanders through its first half, drawing few parallels between the two stories, to the extent that the film feels entirely directionless. It’s only as the pace picks up, following an event revealing Roy’s dark side, that the two worlds begin to blur more satisfyingly and the film manages to create an emotional connection between the two leads. However, the overtly paternal relationship between Roy and Alexandria never quite convinces and when the tears and cries for help come, they just seem unnatural.
Just like The Cell, The Fall succeeds brilliantly on a visual level but falters when it comes to constructing a well-structured plot. This is all the more surprising here as storytelling is of such importance to the narrative. It may well be that the director’s talents are better suited to other mediums.