Tarsem Singh’s The Cell (2000) was one of the best-looking bad movies I’ve ever seen. It certainly wasn’t helped by the presence of Jennifer Lopez or the routine serial killer plot possibly meant to capitalize on the success of David Fincher’s Se7en (both having come from the same studio, New Line Cinema). But it was tragically obvious that Tarsem (as he is simply known) was a wildly talented visual stylist on a par with Terry Gilliam or Jean-Pierre Jeunet. So now, financed by his own money, in production for over four years in 20 countries, and presented by Fincher and Spike Jonze, Tarsem gets a chance to tell one of his own stories. He achieves a high level of spectacle without an ostentatiously high budget. Apart from a scene in which tattoos ink themselves upon a man’s torso, there is little apparent CGI. If Tarsem used more computer effects, they’re good enough to be invisible. And one of the best sequences, a nightmarish surgery, is executed as stop motion animation like something by The Brothers Quay.
The Fall opens in the aftermath of a surreal accident: a horse is lifted by crane from a deep gully after having apparently fallen off a bridge. That we eventually learn that this strange scene is merely a Hollywood Western movie set does not lessen the enjoyably dreamlike weirdness of the imagery. The real theme of the movie is of the power of storytelling through the intense visualization of movies, or even better, the imagination.
American stuntman Roy (Lee Pace) recuperates in a Southern Californian hospital. Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), a little girl mending a broken arm, attaches herself to the bedridden mope. She had fallen from a tree while picking fruit with her Indian immigrant family in nearby orange groves, and now finds herself alone in the strange hospital, isolated not only by her age but also by the language barrier. She has never seen a movie and doesn’t really understand Roy’s job. But she is drawn to him, perhaps partly out of an innocent crush and partly out of her realization he, like she, is unusually imaginative.
The slightly pudgy Untaru is a refreshing casting choice for a child character, endearing but not cloyingly cute or especially precocious. The physically and emotionally traumatized Roy is bemused by her at first, and shortly finds himself entertaining her with a serialized tale of epic derring-do. Roy’s fantastic adventure of the struggle between The Black Bandit against Governor Odious (Daniel Caltagirone) over the beautiful Evelyn (Justine Waddell) becomes a movie-within-the-movie, visualized through the filter of the girl’s meagre experiences but rich imagination. When the American describes an “Indian,” she pictures a man from India, and his “squaw” is an Indian princess. She casts her version of the story with Roy and people from the hospital. In the most Gilliam-esque image, the enemy knights resemble the hospital’s crudely armored X-Ray technicians.
But it turns out Roy is a failed suicide case, heartbroken over losing the love of a beautiful starlet. The accident in the beginning of the film was his; both he and she are literally fallen people. Like Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the seemingly child-like tale he tells is shot through with dark undercurrents. Alexandria can just barely sense the pain embedded in the story, and is unequipped to truly grasp Roy’s deep anxieties that love and life are doomed. Is he being cruel by telling her this story, or is he trying to teach her his grim life lessons?
The conclusion has the feel of being transcendent and exciting, but lacks real punch. In a rapidly accelerating crescendo of cutting and music, Roy and Alexandria heal (physically and emotionally) and leave the hospital. As she grows up, she imagines Roy executing every stunt in every movie she sees for the rest of her life. It’s incredibly callous of me as a viewer to suggest that the story might have taken such a turn, but just imagine the impact this sequence would have had if Roy had killed himself after all… she would keep him alive forever in the movies in her head.