We settled to watch THE FALL with mixed feelings. We quite liked Tarsem Singh’s THE CELL, as a piece of trash with eye-popping visuals. But it was a shame the film was so trashy — “We had fuckin’ J-Lo as a shrink,” as the director admitted — since the premise was intriguing and the swipes from Svankmajer, the Quay Brothers and Joel Peter Witkin were carried off with aplomb.
(Suggestions for future Tarsem films? THE BALL, THE PILL, THE TROLL, THE SMELL?)
We were also a little put off by Singh’s own name-change in the credits, to just plain “Tarsem,” leading Fiona to mourn the days when directors had proper names. “Like McG?” I suggested.
But THE FALL is well worth seeing. At base, it’s a version of THE PRINCESS BRIDE in which the dramatic emphasis has been shifted to the framing story, while the fantasy tale-within-the-tale has been blasted with Technicolor round-the-world locations and visual largesse (I mean, I love THE PRINCESS BRIDE but it’s notably cheap-ass and ill-shot in its swashbuckling sequences: thank God for the script and cast). Tarsem’s pictorial splendour is so excessive it nearly smothers the film, but heroic performances from Lee Pace and Catinca Untaru keep it afloat.
That “heroic” is an understatement. Regular readers will know that I shun hyperbole as sternly as America’s founding fathers shunned crystal meth, but I honestly can’t think of a better performance by an eight-year-old Romanian in any film of the last, oh, three years. She can do anything — at first you think she’s just preternaturally cute, and maybe “Tarsem” (I can’t get used to calling him that!) has just patiently filmed her growing up for a year and cut all the most amusing bits together, but then she holds conversations, and cries, and does all sorts of things that they couldn’t have possibly written a film around. Although rather brilliantly they make use of lots of genuine behaviour from her, like moments when her attention drifts from the scene and then back again.
(Shall I tell you something wonderfully moving? In adults, there is an ability to turn the brain up, to pay full attention, as we call it, so as to absorb information with more efficiency. In little kids, the brain is at this state of alertness all the time. Even when a kid is distracted, they are intensely distracted.)
Watching Catinca think is a pleasure in itself. She’s continually thrown by all the information life fires at her, and she has to sort of momentarily retreat within herself, with an almost audible echoing patter of footsteps, to consult with her brain about how to respond, while her face is left on autopilot, prey to random muscular spasms, gravity, Brownian motion and the prevailing winds, and then she comes running back to the driver’s seat, a dossier of data clutched in her chubby hands, feet skidding on the linoleum, and her face kind of clicks on with an “Occupied” sign again and begins to say stuff. I could watch it for hours.
If the film achieves any kind of balance, it’s because all Metatarsal’s work journeying to the far corners of the Earth is counter-weighted by the patient miracle he’s wrought with his child star. I take my hat off to him. As Guillermo del Toro seems to back ever further away from making the great film of which he once seemed capable (and THE HOBBIT ain’t gonna be it), the guy who once looked like just a flamboyant promo jockey edges ahead.