...Tarsem Singh's dark fairy tale "The Fall."
Tarsem Singh has been on my radar since his first film "The Cell" which was a highly stylized hallucinatory exploration of the psyche of a serial killer. Unfortunately it starred Jennifer Lopez, but she was sufficient and did not detract from the dazzling imagery and the spectacle of the film (and no, she did not play the serial killer--that choice role went to phenomenal actor Vincent D'Onofrio). Singh's follow-up film to "The Cell" was a remake of a Bulgairan film called "Yo Ho Ho" and although I have not seen the original, I can tell that it is nothing at all close to what Tarsem Singh created. Again using grand sets, some built, most real locations, that are startling and surreal, along with costumes by legendary designer Eiko Ishioka (who passed away just last year) who also created the mind-blowing costumes for "The Cell," Singh made another film that is a glimpse into a world of supreme beauty and imagination. Singh's work tangentially reminds me of Greenaway's films in that they are not so much filmed as much as they are composed, like a great painting... each shot meticulously designed and executed.
The narrative takes place between two levels of reality. The first level is at a hospital in southern California in the 1920s where a young stuntman in silent films who has been injured executing a stunt tells a story to a little girl who is recovering from a broken arm. The second level is the reality of the story itself, as it transpires in the little girl's imagination and heart, and by extension, in the mind and heart of the story teller. The dramatic tension comes from the overlapping and intertwining of these two levels of reality. It is fascinating to see how the events in a made up story can alter the "real world." The result is touching, adventurous, funny, and a little cruel.
Actor Lee Pace is excellent as the troubled stunt man and then-five year old Romanian actress Catinca Utaru is a lovely little miracle to watch. Most of the scenes between her and Pace were improvised; as Pace told the story, Catinca's reactions are authentic, and, according to the bonus features and what I have read of the filming process, only marginally shaped and guided by Singh. Many of their scenes were filmed through a slit made in the hospital drapes hanging around the beds, so as not to distract Catinca from her interaction with Pace.
While it is a supremely magical film, I will note that some scenes were lifted, almost identically so, from the great film "Baraka." Singh did a similar thing in "The Cell" with certain scenes modeled after classic or surreal paintings. I can understand that as an homage to a great work of art or artist. To recreate a painting on film seems to be still somehow authentic. But lifting imagery--nearly exactly--from another film (without a reason or some sort of internal logic in the film) seems a bit like cheating. But I will say that while I was struck each time it happened ("My god," I said out loud, "that is a scene right from 'Baraka'!"), it did not derail me out of the film. There is certainly enough original imagery and spell-binding art direction to keep anyone riveted (maybe the fact that the rest of it is so original and interesting makes the lifting of "Baraka" material that much more puzzling).