India / UK / USA, 2006
Review by Adam Balz
Posted on 06 July 2008
Source 35mm print
“Nessum Dorma,” Ken Russell’s nine-minute contribution to the film Aria, concerns a young car-accident victim lingering between life and death whose dreams feature those around her: a doctor in the emergency room becomes an Egyptian prince, while the nurses become his concubines, their surgical masks doubling as sheer veils; the movements of his surgical gloves being pulled on is mimicked in the victim’s mind as the prince displaying a wealth of rings; and the victim’s paramedic boyfriend becomes a Prince Charming to her celestial Sleeping Beauty, awaking her with a kiss just as the nurses awaken her with a defibrillator. This cinematic motif – of reality influencing fantasies and dreams – is by no means new; from Jiri Trnka to David Lynch, The Wizard of Oz to Pan’s Labyrinth, variations on conscious dreaming seem to have existed on celluloid since the early rise of cinema.
Unlike the previous films, the framed stories of Tarsem’s The Fall, told to a young girl by a bedridden and suicidal stuntman, have the added air of fate. Unlike The Emperor’s Nightingale or Mulholland Drive, or even Russell’s Puccini-inspired short, the outcomes in The Fall are preventable and even reversible—and are, in fact, in constant flux, thanks to both the stuntman’s unsteady desperation and the young girl’s insistence on making the story fit her own life, her own innocent expectations.
The stuntman, Roy Walker, is after pills. The stunt he tried and failed to perform, in which he leaps from a bridge into a shallow river, has left him bedridden in a Los Angeles hospital with no feeling in his legs, and he intends to end his life. When a studio representative appears midway through the film to renegotiate Roy’s contract, Roy asks what happens if he should leap from the bridge and die. The representative, unmoved, tells Roy he should drop his pointless attempts at ending his life—a hint that, perhaps, his failure to execute the stunt was not at all an accident.
Roy finds a possible solution in the young girl, named Alexandria. Her arm in a cast after injuring herself while picking fruit, she finds Roy while wandering the hospital wings and promptly becomes his bedside companion. With every story he tells her – first about Alexander the Great, then the main story about six men out for revenge – he gains her trust, so much so that he asks her to retrieve a bottle from the hospital dispensary. She returns with only three pills, so he once again asks her to steal an overdose-worth of medicine, this time from the cabinet of another hospital patient, plying her with an increasingly confused and depressing tale of failed love, tyranny, and destruction.
Alexandria’s imaginings of Roy’s story, brought to life by intensely beautiful sets and stunning cinematography, feature a cast of hospital workers and Hollywood insiders alike who visit Roy throughout his stay. An orderly becomes Charles Darwin, clad in a shag-carpet coat and accompanied by a monkey; one of Roy’s fellow performers, an actor with only one leg, becomes Luigi, an explosives expert; the man who delivers ice to the hospital becomes an African warrior named Otta Benga; and two orange-harvesters become the Mystic and the Indian, the former of whom also embodies certain traits of an older patient with false teeth. The final member of this group, a masked leader reminiscent of Zorro known only as the Black Bandit, is a composite of both Alexandria’s slain father, seen only in flashbacks, and Roy himself.
The meaning behind the film’s title is twofold. We’re offered the first during the dialogue-free opening credits, when we see the stunt Roy has failed to perform. The opening credits end with Roy’s horse being lifted from the water below, motionless and without its rider. The second meaning behind The Fall is, of course, Roy’s descent into despondency. It’s through Roy’s alter-ego that we learn he cannot swim: In the story, the Bandit leaves the island to which he and the others have been banished by riding an elephant across the ocean. It’s no surprise, then, that the first and final confrontation with villain Governor Odious, whose real-life inspiration is the Valentino-esque actor who has stolen Roy’s beloved, occurs in Odious’s rooftop swimming pool, where the villain forces our hero underwater in an attempt – successful, it seems at first – to drown him.
The reason behind Roy’s “epic” story having to end so tragically, according to Roy himself, is because his story follows real life, and in real life everything dies—including, we’re supposed to understand, Roy himself. He is pleading for death as a necessity, that he has to die for the story – his life and his tale – to end. In Roy’s mind, this is his fate. But Alexandria refuses to accept this as the final outcome; as we watch the Bandit being held underwater, blood pouring from his lips, we hear her pleas for him to rise from the water over the Bandit’s resigned inaction. Alexandria believes that the Bandit – and Roy – has the power to change his fate.
The downfall of Diane in Mulholland Drive is mirrored in the rise of “Betty” and the manufactured world of success in which she suddenly appears, just as the boy’s loneliness in The Emperor’s Nightingale, represented by the untouched toys in his room – gifts from his faraway father – blossoms into a fantasy about the loneliness of a pampered monarch. The Fall, which seems destined to follow the same trajectory, becomes something else: As Tarsem’s film draws to a close, the story and Alexandria’s insistence on changes begin to influence Roy’s outlook on ending his life, on his need to die because, as he says, no one loves him. Where those surrounding the crash victim in Russell’s “Nessum Dorma” influence her dreams and the surroundings of her new wartime home in Pan’s Labyrinth influences Ofelia’s fantasy, it is Roy’s epic story – influenced by Alexandria’s reality – that actually manages to impact Roy’s own reality and convince him to live.