Tarsem fascinates me. He’s a contradiction in terms — Schrodinger’s Filmmaker. At once quite talented and obscenely hacky, his films are as full of breathtaking imagery as they are insipid storytelling. His second feature, The Fall, is about storytelling, and he still can’t come up with a story worth telling. The Fall is a film built for Youtube videos called like “Best Examples Of Cinematography Ever (Part 3)” or “LEGENDARY Editing Tricks (No CGI!!)” more than it’s built for, you know, watching all the way through.
I think the problem here stems not from the film’s narrative failings but from the narrative attempt itself. I would love to see The Fall recut into something more abstract, a surreal and dreamlike journey where fantastical images abound. It’s got all the pieces, but the way it assembles them is so thuddingly literal as to drown what is genuinely compelling about Tarsem’s visual work. Why should I care about such evocative compositions if all they are meant to evoke are the dishwater-dull designs of the director’s ode to the act of storytelling? Tarsem has such an innate talent for constructing these epic, sweeping visions, where the characters are dwarfed by the oppressive negative spaces surrounding them. That turns out to be a a decent metaphor for the film as a whole: Characters swallowed up by setting.
But oh, what setting! There are so many images of impossible beauty and visual complexity that Tarsem barely knows what to do with them all. A stunning set based on real Indian stepwells would have been the subject of an entire setpiece from another director. Tarsem spends barely two minutes there before moving on. It gives off this sense of desperation, like Tarsem thinks this will be his final film and is rushing to get every idea out of his head at once. I can appreciate such a frantic desire to be seen and heard, especially when the results are so often breathtaking.
No, the problems with The Fall are entirely down to how half-baked its story is. I will say that the film’s depiction of suicidal depression struck a chord with me, mostly due to Lee Pace’s performance. Pace does well at selling his character’s hopelessness and resentment at a world that brought him to this point. But mostly it’s just boring. The crossovers between the film’s real world and its fictional one are both too obvious and not meaningful enough. There are some nice touches here and there (Alexandria imagines a man from India when Roy says “Indian,” though it’s clear to us that Roy is referring to a Native American) but the film takes too long to find any significance in these overlapping narratives. I would have preferred it to not go looking for significance at all than make such a half-assed attempt.
The better version of this film sees Tarsem stepping back and letting the audience find what they will in his work. I don’t think he’s an egotistical artist, but I do think he’s too absorbed by his own vision to let the viewer in. There’s nothing to dig into in The Fall, because its creator has already done all the digging for you. He has the ability to conjure such striking images, the sort of stunning visuals you expect to lose yourself in. And then he hands you a map.