One of the most reliable rules of film-viewing has always been to avoid directors with only one name, from McG to Pitof. However, The Fall may be the exception that proves the rule. It is the definition of a vanity project, and, as Roger Ebert points out, ‘you can only admire the man vain enough to make it’. That man is Tarsem, an Indian-born director who has written, directed and financed an unfairly ignored gem.
It begins in an early 20th century Los Angeles hospital, where a paralysed stuntman, Roy (Lee Pace) weaves a surreal fantasy tale for a fellow patient, six year old Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), in a plot reminiscent of The Princess Bride. However, this is not such a light-hearted film, and the motive behind Roy’s skilful storytelling is soon revealed to be far darker.
Of the little coverage the film received, critics largely concentrated on its breath-taking visuals, yet failed to note that, amazingly, the film contains absolutely no CGI, instead employing locations in twenty-four different countries and a gruelling four-year shoot. Yet while its beauty is extraordinary – Tarsem happily calls it ‘a visual wank’ – The Fall contains so much more. It is unashamedly sentimental about story telling and a celebration of the transformative power of art.
Vital to the film’s success is the performance of Catinca Untaru, a young Romanian girl with no previous acting experience. Indeed, the film would not have been made had the right actress not been found, and production was fast-tracked as soon as Untaru was discovered. Her naturalism and innocence is extraordinary, both of which stem from a semi-improvised script and an unsteady grasp of the English language.
The Fall is one of a handful of films that can truly be referred to as ‘visual poetry’, though such a hackneyed term hardly does it justice, and fails to take note of its emotional power. It is a film at once joyous and sinister, a fantastical and truly original celebration of the powers of story telling and cinema. Close in tone and quality to the better-known Pan’s Labyrinth, the film should be regarded as a worthy companion to Del Toro’s masterpiece. Tarsem has single-handedly produced a film of staggering beauty and wild ambition, and his plaudits are long overdue.