Before Your Very Eyes: Tarsem’s The Fall

Lee Pace in The Fall (Tarsem, 2006) | Roadside Attractions
Roadside Attractions

The story. Which one to begin with? The Fall‘s plot, the plots within it, or the making of the film itself? Let’s try the plot first. 

Roy Walker (Lee Pace), a paralyzed stuntman wasting away in a Los Angeles hospital, circa 1915. In the same place, Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), a young Romanian girl who broke her arm picking oranges. She wanders idly around the hospital, peering through keyholes, looking out at the world beyond and within, eventually in on Roy. They intrude upon each other. Alexandria harbors a small infatuation with Nurse Evelyn, to whom she writes a letter thrown weakly from a window but which accidentally ends up floating onto Roy’s lap. Alexandria demands the letter back and Roy tells her a story for her trouble. It’s the first time we get a glimpse at the imaginative world The Fall has in store. We go from the hospital bed directly to a lone Alexander the Great on horseback making his way through grey and green ruins, his costume—breastplate, gauntlet, red-tinged helmet—simple in a manner similar to those in Zack Snyder’s 300, though I’m not sure Gerard Butler wore such distinctive eye makeup.

Alexandria interrupts: Why didn’t Alexander ride through those buildings on his horse?

Roy, unbalanced, adjusts quickly: Actually, he didn’t have a horse.

At the same time that Roy changes this small detail, Alexander the Great gets off his horse and leaves it behind. Such spontaneous narrative edits will continue as Alexandria visits Roy at his bedside and as Roy develops his self-loathing, opportunistic impulse to manipulate a child through fairytale. At first, he asks her to perform simple tasks like touching his toes to see if feeling is returning to his feet before moving on to more treacherous requests like fetching Roy a fatal dose of morphine.

These days, Tarsem Singh is far enough removed from The Fall to not worry about keeping his facts straight regarding how the production came together. In a certain order, the bullet points make the whole enterprise seem extremely romantic. It supposedly started with an idea developed over many years, maybe even decades. Then there was the lack of financing, along with an intentionally unfinished script—speaking with Roger Ebert, one of few ardent critical champions of The Fall at the time, Tarsem said, “If you think it’s hard raising money for a film, try telling people that the script is going to be written by a 4-year-old. It’s going to be dictated to me by a child.” Plus the need to shoot in numerous countries (24 or 28? The numbers are never the same) and the director’s desire to cast a then-unknown Lee Pace in a starring role.

Tarsem got creative, starting with a search for the right child to portray Alexandria. “For seven years wherever I would shoot a commercial I would send people out with a camera to schools, and one day I got a tape of this girl at a school in Romania…She was perfect. She didn’t speak English. The penny dropped. She was 6, but if she didn’t speak the language she would be using, the misunderstanding would buy me the two years that I needed. Because she had to seem 4.”

This kind of second and third hand recounting is misleading, of course. Retrospective and collated a little too neatly. There is no mistaking that The Fall is a feat of filmmaking, one whose power continues to grow with each passing year. But maybe it’s really the product of a bad breakup, as Tarsem told one publication, money once saved for a wedding later used for production costs. Or something less concrete. “This is an obsession I wish I hadn’t had,” Tarsem told the L.A. Times. “It was just something I needed to exorcise. You have to make your personal films when you’re still young. I knew if I didn’t do it now, it would never happen.”

The more I watch it, the more this sentiment rings true. From his previous statements, it seems that what Tarsem threw into the making of The Fall wasn’t nearly as powerful as the impulse that started it—a thought at once inspiring and melancholic, suggesting unrelenting effort to build something bigger and bolder than your pain, so that it might overshadow anything that came before.

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The man in the X-ray chamber comes first, his head covered by a medieval leather helmet. Then there is the tall, handsome man who stops by the hospital to deliver ice from his pickup truck. And the old patient who entertains young children with his false teeth. An orderly and a nurse and a priest and a one-legged man and an old colleague from the orange farm. Alexandria populates Roy’s tale of heroes and villains with people from her past, along with those she sees at the hospital everyday. The ice deliveryman becomes an ex-slave whose brother dies from exhaustion under the ownership of evil governor Odious, himself the actor that seemingly ruined Roy’s life; Alexandria’s friend from the orange fields becomes the silent Indian man whose beautiful wife commits suicide after being stolen by Odious; the one-legged co-star from Roy’s movie turns into Luigi, the Italian explosives expert, banished by Odious because of the dangerous potential of his bombs; a hospital orderly becomes a young Charles Darwin, lover of all living things, accompanied by Wallace the monkey.

A story about subjectivity in storytelling, The Fall feels self-aware about its depiction of a lively, unfolding bond between two people who gradually learn what it takes to pull someone back from the brink. It is the product of people who throw themselves into the creation of fictions that reflect their own lives, even if those reflections are unintentional, even if each person is really trying to forget about the kind of pain that feels like it’ll last forever.

The visual scope of the film is expansive, lush, and sometimes symbolic to the obliteration of subtlety because it is fueled by a child’s wonder. Alexandria’s finger starts on one side of the frame then reappears on the other as she closes one eye at a time. The shadow of a man and his horse through a keyhole appears upside down on a wall. Swimming elephants summoned like Tolkien’s Great Eagles, an exotic butterfly that turns into a coral reef, the wedding of spinning white dancers, a dead tree combusting and giving life to a man, a death shroud blooming red with blood, the city of blue houses, a stop-motion surgical operation. And then there are Eiko Ishioka’s gorgeous costumes: Darwin clad in a coat of feathers like a red peacock, the silent Indian in flowing vibrant green and jewels, Luigi’s sun-yellow coat and his red hat. The Fall is a fantasy and it is nothing without Alexandria’s imagination.

Dennis Harvey, writing for Variety in 2007, called the film “a coffee-table book of striking travelogue images masquerading as warm-hearted period drama and fantasy.” A little too calculated in its dismissal to my ears. These are images rendered beautifully because they must be, no logic needed; it almost feels inadequate to simply call them “images.” Often, I’m left with a dilemma when describing what Tarsem has created. It’s not arrogance to say that there is at least one frame contained within that will be so overwhelming because of its sheer scale or grace that a person viewing it for the first time will be left baffled. (Who perfectly match-cuts a smiling face with a valley and mountain?) But the true power of what you see comes, I think, from how ordinarily it’s presented. Some shots are huge, but last for only a few seconds. Others luxuriate in slow motion, colorful figures juxtaposed against negative space—though Tarsem’s version of negative space can mean a patterned doorway at the Taj Mahal, a blue sky with striations of clouds, or a pile of dead men clad in black leather. The combination forces a kind of familiarity with places that make no physical sense, with a world that can’t exist but is nonetheless the setting for the narrative.

David Fincher, a longtime friend of Tarsem’s, shared the director’s fondness for utilizing “big” shots without fawning over them when he gambled on the digital aging technology for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. “In these three shots, you’re gonna see Benjamin’s head replaced as he’s walking out of frame,” Fincher says in the director’s commentary. “Benjamin’s head replaced as he’s petting the dog. And again, do you need to do those effects shots? But that’s what makes him, to me, feel real. He’s a real person in these scenes because you throw him away. He’s there and he’s doing what Benjamin would do, but it’s not like it’s always framed and supported as a big money shot.”

The difference, though, is that Tarsem didn’t have the backing of a major studio, or any studio. The way he tells it, he simply maintained relationships that seemed like they might come in handy later. “There are no computer effects,” he told Roger Ebert. “It’s just the kind of visual stuff like what I was doing all the time with commercials, where it looks like more than it is. In all these places I had filmed over at least 17 years, I told the people, this is a paid job, it’s a commercial, but I’ll come back one day and make this place look magical.”

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Back in high school, I once traded The Fall for Bryan Fuller’s Pushing Daisies, which also starred Lee Pace. My friend hadn’t seen the former, I hadn’t seen the latter. I still don’t remember what I said that convinced her to watch it. It may have been as simple as pointing out that Lee Pace was in the starring role, as is the case for many people. Sometimes, I’m unsure if the truth was the other way around, my showing her Pushing Daisies and her showing me The Fall. Memory and uncertainty melt together as time goes on.

Among the pleasures of The Fall is its choice to lean into the unreliability of its narrator. Tarsem seems more interested in the role that audience participation plays in the collaborative nature of storytelling than in any red herring. Which makes the film a contradiction. There is Alexandria, an active audience of one who has the power to change whatever she dislikes or doesn’t make sense to her, and us, who have no choice but to watch it play out. Roy, on the other hand, believes himself exempt from the influence of his myth, even as its creation is influenced by his depression and anger. One day, he’s visited at the hospital by several members of the film crew who witnessed his fall off the bridge. Lounging outside is the actor Roy doubled for, who appears as Odious in the fairytale, signing pictures of himself as giggling nurses peek around the corner. In a car parked further away is a crying woman, presumably Roy’s lost love if the pictures by his bedside are any indication. Everything Roy feels is serious, self-serious, and extremely grave. He’s heartbroken, unable to walk, and repeatedly told that he’s healing, even if it doesn’t feel that way. “It’s not his back,” one of the crew members says to the actor. “He needs to get over her. He’s not the first guy to lose a girl.”

The Fall (2006) | Roadside Attractions

Alexandria finds all of this amusing. Her motivation in continuing to see Roy is simple—she understands his circumstances as a child does—but her apprehension of the situation isn’t wrong. She sees clearly. The value in a relationship can’t be measured by whether or not it’s romantic, whether it worked out or not. In some ways, romance is a reminder of parenting for Alexandria. She imagines her father as the swashbuckling masked bandit who leads his team of vengeful outcasts to free Sister Evelyn from the clutches of governor Odious. Then she imagines Roy, her friend.

As the plot continues and Roy’s manipulation of Alexandria fails to yield him a fatal dose of medication, the act of storytelling mirrors the exhausting act of maintaining a lie. The team of heroes are ensnared by Odious’ henchmen. Alexandria steps into the fairytale and frees everyone at the same time that she attempts to secure a full bottle of pills for Roy. She slips and falls in the process, fracturing her skull. The accident breaks Roy. He appears by Alexandria’s bedside, her head wrapped in bandages, his eyes wet with tears as he takes a swig from a bottle of medicine. No more lies. Roy thinks he can destroy the fantasy that has nearly killed his friend by exposing its unreality and simultaneously his own cynicism. The heroes storm the castle, violently picked off one by one. Roy wants to die. Why shouldn’t everyone else? “Our masked bandit’s a coward.” He eschews any notion that a fairytale ending where good triumphs over evil could help anybody.

Alexandria interrupts: It’s my story. Mine too.

Moving on doesn’t always have to be framed as winning, though it is often easier to imagine the aftermath of love as someone succeeding without you while you are left behind. Sometimes, there is no promise that the pain will disappear. It would be false to suggest either that Alexandria saves Roy in the end or that Roy saves himself. That’s the real fantasy. In truth, the two of them simply choose to keep going, a task made easier by their friendship and their journey together.

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The Fall (Tarsem, 2006) | Roadside Attractions

“I wanted people to really think he was crippled,” Tarsem told the L.A. Times in 2007. He, meaning Lee Pace, who took on two acting jobs with The Fall: that of the character of Roy, paralyzed in the hospital, and that of Lee Pace, handicapped actor shooting a film in a hospital over 12 weeks. “On the last day of shooting, the actor told the crew, ‘I have something to say,’ and he stood up and told everyone he could walk. Some people laughed, some people cried, some people were angry. But it was necessary for the movie.”

Directors convince themselves of a lot of things in the midst of production. Faking a disability makes for a good story in retrospect, but I wonder if it was really all that necessary. Then again, it may have been for the benefit of Catinca Untaru, the actress who plays Alexandria and had to learn all her English lines phonetically. One less thing to focus on, a reality that’s easier to sink into.

By the end of The Fall, I am left with a lingering feeling. I wonder if Tarsem believes Roy got better. As a greatest hits reel of silent film stunts plays in the outro, I wonder if Tarsem ever exorcised what he set out to in the making of a film that took four years to complete. Then again, I wonder if such supposed catharsis applies. Maybe it’s enough that The Fall got made at all, that it exists to be visited and revisited, that we are still talking about it, that there is still nothing else like it.