It’s been eight years since single-monikered director Tarsem’s first film, The Cell, and opinions on the filmmaker and his work remain deeply divided. It’s unlikely that his long-in-the-works follow-up, The Fall, will be any less polarizing. Like The Cell, it’s a visually astonishing piece of craftsmanship with fundamental storytelling problems. While The Cell married Tarsem’s startling and original filmmaking to a standard-issue serial-killer plot, The Fall is much less concerned with story structure, and thus has little more than its stunningly composed images to go on.
They’re worth quite a lot, though; Tarsem creates rigorous, painterly tableaux that are triumphs of costuming and production design, and often look more like fashion photography than narrative filmmaking (it’s no surprise that he spends most of his time making commercials). They dominate The Fall’s fantasy sequences, which make up about half of the movie and are representations of a story told by Hollywood stuntman Roy (Pace) to six-year-old Alexandria (Untaru) as both convalesce in a Los Angeles hospital in the 1920s.
Alexandria, recovering from a broken arm, is just looking for a friend and a way to pass the time, while Roy, paralyzed from the waist down in a stunt gone wrong, hopes to trick the little girl into getting him enough morphine to commit suicide. She listens raptly to his fairly nonsensical story, which features a mysterious bandit, a beautiful princess and, uh, Charles Darwin in a pimp coat, among other visually striking but narratively incoherent elements.
The hospital scenes were mostly improvised, and Untaru behaves in them exactly like … well, like a six-year-old girl with a limited grasp of English (she’s Romanian). These rambling scenes then inform the way the fable unfolds, which at best is impressionistic and dreamlike, but for the most part is just haphazard.
As pretty as the movie is, its emotional core never feels real. The end result is like listening to a little kid tell a story: sometimes intriguingly bizarre and surprisingly clever, but mostly just futile and frustrating.