In 1991, Tarsem directed the most popular and acclaimed music video of its era, R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” and helped catapult the band into pop stardom. Although R.E.M. soon became a household name Tarsem, a chief architect of their breakthrough success, would go on to experience a level of relative obscurity that persists to this day. With “Losing My Religion” Tarsem ushered in an unparalleled period of visual creativity, nonlinear narrative, and unorthodox style that would transform MTV into a proving ground for innovative directors on the rise. David Fincher and Spike Jonze are just two of Tarsem’s contemporaries who benefited from his efforts and turned MTV tenures into flourishing careers as film directors, so it stands to reason that these two “present” Tarsem’s sophomore feature-length film, The Fall. With this film, Tarsem seizes upon the considerable potential for visual storytelling he first demonstrated with “Losing My Religion” and creates an engrossing meditation on storytelling, friendship, imagination, and redemption.
Appropriately enough, Tarsem begins his tale of a storyteller with the statement, “Los Angeles - Once Upon a Time.” As these words fade, a breathtaking, silent, slow motion segment shot in black and white details the chaotic aftermath of a terrible accident during the filming of a movie in the early days of Hollywood. The next scene opens in sepia-tinged color on a quiet hospital where we meet Alexandria, the precocious five year old daughter of Romanian migrant workers who broke her arm picking oranges in the nearby groves. Alexandria should be in school or playing with friends, but instead wanders the halls of the hospital with her awkward cast and goes where her curiosity takes her. Soon, Alexandria’s explorations bring her to Roy, the stuntman injured in the film’s opening segment, as he begins a slow, troublesome recovery. Roy captures Alexandria’s interest with a vivid, outlandish story and asks her to come back and visit him soon so he can keep telling her the story. Alexandria returns the next day and their relationship begins to deepen while Roy’s fantastic story grows a life of its own with Alexandria’s imagination. Tarsem spent four years creating Roy and Alexandria’s sprawling, boundless narrative while traveling the world and filming dozens of the planet’s most gorgeous and spellbinding locations. While the images of the story certainly entice the eye, The Fall’s potent emotional resonance derives from the relationship between Alexandria and Roy. Lee Pace delivers an unforgettably vulnerable and textured performance as Roy and shares an uncanny chemistry with Cantica Untaru who brings a wondrous, guileless charm to her portrayal of Alexandria.
“Losing My Religion” and The Fall both bounce between a lush, old-fashioned setting for their principal subjects and a fervently stylized, dreamlike realm that balances the sacred and the profane as beautiful images inspired by classical masterpieces exist alongside slapstick comedy and bizarre anachronisms. After a flawed and peculiar debut, The Cell (a now forgotten Jennifer Lopez procedural from 2000), Tarsem chose to adapt an obscure 1981 Bulgarian film, Yo Ho Ho, for his next project. In the adaptation that became The Fall, Tarsem wisely switched the actor’s profession from the stage to the silent film era allowing him to reflect on the formative years of cinema with a mix affection, awe, and concern. With The Fall, Tarsem not only achieves the greatest statement of his wholly unique artistic vision, but also creates a movie that reminds of us of the irresistible magic of incredible filmmaking.
- John Parsell