I am, by nature, suspicious of any director who goes by one name, but with The Fall, Tarsem has created a movie that’s wonderful in all senses of the word. The story, set in the late 1910s or early ’20s in a hospital in Los Angeles, is seen through the eyes of a little Indian girl, Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), whose arm was injured picking oranges. It’s a little confusing at first—she is so ingratiated with the hospital staff that one may for a moment think she’s there for the long run—but she’s simply an endearing, adventurous little sprite who gets her kicks from witnessing the oddball behaviors of others. She stumbles upon another patient, Roy (Lee Pace), a Hollywood stuntman whose heart was recently broken when his girlfriend left him for the suave star of the cowboy picture he was making. Roy rambles off tall tales, and Alexandria, an innocently imaginative youngster, conjures up ornate fantasy sequences out of his comical bullshit. Eventually, we see that his storytelling is really a means to get Alexandria to scrounge some morphine for him. As we learn more about his backstory, his yarn—about an international cadre seeking to avenge themselves upon the evil Governor Odious—gets increasingly darker; Roy wants to overdose and kill himself.
Of course, the story within the story is analogous to the plot, and the people Alexandria encounters become characters in the tale. And Roy’s story is lovably absurd, with details shifting and inconsistencies abounding as we see it unfold—and hear it amended by both the stuntman and little girl. These aren’t new storytelling devices, but they’re wonderfully and imaginatively employed here—better even, I think, than they were in two movies that certainly influenced this one: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Princess Bride. One friend complained that the epic quality of the fantasies made the movie seem “important”; I wholeheartedly disagree. Tarsem is never pretentious, and the spectacle never becomes overblown, as it was in, say, The Lord of the Rings, because his spectacle is a celebration of silly banter. The joke is that, despite the care and preparation obviously needed to execute such sequences, the fantasy interludes are made to look improvised, and they’re enormous because we are seeing Roy’s synapse-popping pastiche reverberate in a callow, mesmerized imagination (which is not so incredulous as to disbelieve Roy’s including Charles Darwin as an action hero). At one point, Roy argues that it’s his story; he can tell it however he wants. But Alexandria remonstrates: It’s her story now, too. Tarsem wallows in the shallow battiness of adventure tales, but his movie is not shallow. With the able help of his actors, he brings real emotional depth to The Fall.
Pace (of the darkly humorous T.V. show Pushing Daisies) pulls off a difficult role—a man for whom the audience is meant to feel sympathy, but must reveal a decaying, manipulative and destructive self-pity as the story goes on. These undulations are especially tricky in a film whose point of view comes from a little kid who couldn’t understand such things; we have to see his change of heart occur quietly because he’s putting on an act for Alexandria. For her part, Untaru is a spectacular child actress. With her plump cheeks, she’s not so plastic-pretty as so many little-girl stars, and Alexandria isn’t supernaturally knowing or perceptive like so many of her arbiter-of-innocence movie-children ilk. Her innocent outlook is certainly a crux for the movie’s dramatic machinery, but Alexandria is no softie—she starts off using Roy for the stories just as he’s using her for drugs. Untaru is perfectly believable as a little rascal who doesn’t need to pay attention or tell the truth when she doesn’t want to, but who looks with affection at the world and people around her. Her “innocence” rehabilitates Roy, but he’s no easy nut to crack, and her methods are neither direct nor purposeful—she cares for the man, but doesn’t comprehend his situation, so her goal is to reach a happy ending in his story, not fix her friend’s life.
With all the dark little jokes and deaths (none too graphic) and adult themes, The Fall may end up in the category of movies-for-kids-that-are-really-for-adults. But, unlike another hallmark of that genre, Pan’s Labyrinth (which actually came out the same year as this, although The Fall took two years to reach the U.S.), this movie is truly ideal for kids. The escapist-fantasy scenes here play with a similar idea, but Tarsem doesn’t have Guillermo del Toro’s dark vision; even though Tarsem’s little girl lives the bleak life of a child laborer, she’s escaping because she wants to, not because she needs to. Tarsem slips into Be Kind Rewind/public-television-documentary mode in a retrospective of the silent-film greats in the end, and it’s a little soppy and redundant; but his movie’s creamy and sweet without ever rolling into a cheeseball.