No writers have ever succeeded in wordsmithing a more bring-you-to-the-edge-of-your-seat, evocative turn of phrase than “Once upon a time.”
It’s an invitation to the reader, or listener, to start filling the clean slate of their imagination with monsters, royalty, rugged adventurers or children lost in a dark forest.
When The Fall throws the words “Once upon a time in Los Angeles” across the screen in its giant, serif font, it is a promise. We are quickly made to understand what kind of fairy tale we’ll see.
Bed-ridden, suicidal Roy (Lee Pace of
Pushing Daisies) ) tells 5-year old Alexandra (Cantica Untaru) she is named after Alexander the Great. Immediately we see a sharp, clear blue sky and a bone-white desert surrounded by hills of orange sand upon which stands the aforementioned king. It is just the first of many gasp-worthy tableaus that director Tarsem (The Cell) has in store.
Roy is a reverse Scheherezade, telling his story to manipulate the rapt child at his side to steal enough morphine from the hospital to complete his failed suicide attempt. His bedtime story is about a fairy-tale A-Team that gathers together to seek revenge against the evil Governor Odious.
The adventurers are all played by characters from Alexandra’s life, which allows for some amusing moments such as when Roy is obviously describing an American Indian while Alexandra is imagining an East Indian. As the movie pulls us forward, the tale that Roy spins falls under the shadow of his own depression, a contrast to Alexandra’s naive nature.
Lee Pace plays extremely well against Cantica Untaru. The obvious moments where Pace rolls with Untaru going offscript can be both fun and frustrating. Untaru’s open, trusting nature is essential to her character. It’s the only way we can believe that she would accept Roy’s machinations at face value.
The Fall’s story is backdrop for one brilliant image after another. This is a movie that sticks in the mind not because of plot but because of an overhead shot of twenty whirling dervishes in blue and white spinning around a wedding, or an underwater shot of an elephant swimming, or of an image of a butterfly transforming into a place called Butterfly Reef.
Much of the film was shot on location in India (I recognized sights from Jaipur and Agra) and its use of ancient palaces and temples is startling and unique. It’s one thing to throw vistas into the background, it’s another to stage a suicidal jump off one of the giant astronomical instruments at Jantar Mantar.
All of which brings to mind the question of whether style is enough? Or, in other words, is The Fall Tarsem’s Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive? My opinion leans towards the latter. The framing device of the hospital eventually lost my interest, but how the two stories interacted never did.
Alexandra’s interruptions and Roy’s mid-story corrections (“And he vowed to kill everything Spanish.” “But the Masked Bandit is Spanish.” “No, he’s French.”) make the whole story feel like the bedside tale it is presented as.
The tragedy in the hospital at the end of the movie was less compelling to me than its effect on the story being told. All of this is to say, while it’s not just pretty pictures, in the end, the pretty pictures are what make The Fall such a pleasurable experience. And, with its coda, a far more successful paean to movies (and fairy tales) than Be Kind Rewind could ever dream to be.