Back in the day when he was directing REM’s Losing My Religion video and making award-winning commercials, he was known by his full name Tarsem Singh. These days, though, like Madonna, Aaliyah and Lulu before him, he has abandoned his surname altogether but even those who found his feature debut The Cell (2000) somewhat derivative and empty (if visually stunning) may well prefer to address Tarsem as ‘maestro’ or even ‘guru’ once they have had their eyes and mind expanded by his latest film, The Fall.
Little migrant girl Alexandria (amazing newcomer Catinca Untaru) is stuck in a hospital in the rural outskirts of 1920s Los Angeles after breaking her arm in a fall. Irrepressibly curious and bored, she is naturally drawn to Roy Walker (Lee Pace), a pioneering stuntman bedridden after his own fall, who is suffering from psychological scars far worse than his physical injuries. Over several days Roy keeps Alexandria entertained in return for certain favours that she does not fully understand – with an epic tale of adventure, romance and revenge, brought to life by the girl’s vivid imagination. As Roy declines and the story grows ever darker, Alexandria struggles to pull both back from the brink of another fall, armed only with her innocence, hope and love.
A fantasy told to a sickly child, The Fall has been compared to Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride (1987), but it has just as much in common with Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), while its exuberant imagery evokes the visionary works of Alejandro Jodorowsky specifically Fando y Lis (1968) for the live birds flying out of a dead man’s mouth, El Topo (1970) for the masked bandit and child, and The Holy Mountain (1973) for the group quest and kaleidoscopic pageantry. There is even a dream sequence with stop-motion dolls and puppets as nightmarish as anything animated by the Brothers Quay.
All of which is to say that The Fall plays like a fever dream of cinematic spectacle, offering a wide-screen parade of some of the most achingly beautiful and awe-inspiring cinematography ever to have been seen. There is occasional, sparing use of special effects, but for the most part Tarsem achieves the film’s unique look by combining brilliantly chosen locations (natural and architectural) from around the globe into a single, fluid spatial continuum that both imitates and inspires the desultory excursions of the mind’s eye.
This inner topography is filled with impossibly lavish costumes and mythic details, and the results are simply breathtaking. The Fall is also, in keeping with its title, a reflexive commentary on the genesis (as well as the nature and scope) of cinema’s special brand of illusion, constructed from the collision of a filmmaker’s masked intentions with a viewer’s memories and desires. The fall of Man, in all its inevitability, is rarely so gloriously celebrated or so wondrously aestheticised.
So see it on a big screen, and prepare to have your eyeballs seared. By the end, you will be only too pleased to know Tarsem on a first-name basis.