In a Los Angeles hospital in 1916, a night-shirted man lies in bed and beckons over a small girl with a broken arm and missing milk teeth. ‘I’ll tell you a story. Close your eyes. There were five of them: The Indian. The Ex-Slave. The Explosives Expert. Charles Darwin. And the Masked Bandit. They had one common enemy…’ Then the images begin: a rearing horse, a strange bare tree ablaze, a monstrous juggernaut powered by children, a blue city, a swimming elephant.
God, it’s a good trailer. I only saw it because the remote was too far away to bother leaning over and skipping straight to the menu of whatever DVD I was trying to watch. Why had I never heard of this movie? Where had it come from?
It came from Pepsi Max, as it turned out. And Nike Trainers and Levi Jeans and Honda Civics, and eventually Michael Stipe.
One-name-only director Tarsem spent fifteen years of his life making high prestige, mainstream adverts (and the occasional award winning REM video) as a self-confessed ‘prostitute’ of his art, while he waited for a way to make this film. And while he waited (being the equivalent of a particularly high priced call girl, to stretch a metaphor), he made millions. Then he liquidated the lot and made The Fall.
So to go back: it’s a story in a story. Ray, a stuntman paralysed by a fall on a silent film set and jilted by his actress lover, befriends Alexandria, a six year old girl from a precarious family of immigrant farmers recovering from the tumble that broke her arm (as you might imagine, falls, both literal and metaphorical, litter this film). Ray needs something – enough morphine tablets to commit suicide – and he sees a way to get it. And so he starts telling Alexandria a story.
From the beginning it’s made clear that Roy might be telling it, but Alexandria is seeing it. Ray introduces an ‘Indian’ complete with squaw and wigwam, but on screen we see a continental Indian in full beard and turban – a figure from her own life, as all the characters turn out to be, transformed in her mind’s eye into what we see on screen.
And blimey, what a mind. All the reviews of this film talk about the visuals. The world we see as Roy narrates is unbelievable: stylised, colour saturated; an incredible whirl of desert and mountain and canyon and forest, sprawling cities and tropical islands and vast tracts of empty landscapes, impossibly grandiose architecture and strange otherworldly structures. It is entirely unreal.
Except everything in it is entirely real. There’s no computer generated effects. Even more than that, there’s a minimum of constructed sets. Almost all of these fantasy scenes are shot from what was already there, in 28 countries all told, waiting quietly to be caught. If CGI-built worlds can leave us jaded, accepting the constructed reality but losing all feeling from it, then there is something entirely thrilling in knowing that the final stand of Darwin and Wallace the monkey takes place in an twelve hundred year old step well used to calculate, by the height of the water, the level of taxation due that year, and that the strange maze the Indian’s ‘squaw’ loses herself in is a huge and enigmatic eighteenth century astronomical calculator, where two centuries ago men would ascend to peer at the stars.
It’s worth saying that Ray is not, in fact, a very good storyteller. He’s patching together clichés from half-remembered Saturday afternoon matinees to manipulate Alexandria into doing what he wants, but it’s her who brings the story to vivid life. Interestingly, at one point she tells Roy she’s never seen a movie. ‘You’re not missing much’ he says wryly. Alexandria’s imagination is pure and unencumbered and so can build this fantastic, edgeless world, whereas Roy, tied to his idea of what stories should be, ends up with a half-hearted plot that can’t keep up with her. This is a weakness of the film, of course, but there’s another way of looking at it: Tarsem stood on the edge of the film making world for years, making soulless, terrifically cynical adverts for products it seems unlikely he cared too much about; now, given the chance, he is showing us what other movies are lacking. He has conjured up an experience unencumbered by the demands of a studio, financial backers or even a big name star, and in the Blue City of Jodhpur, the ‘moonscape’ of an Indian mountain range, the butterfly reef off Fiji, the dunes and salt pans of Namibia pierced by the scorched skeletons of 900 year old thorn bush trees, he shows us what we have been missing.
But there’s no room for emotion in these huge sweeps of landscapes. Love, anger, revenge and fear are nothing more than melodramatic declarations, soon forgotten in the whirl of moving pictures. What sticks with you instead are the hospital scenes, the story of Ray and Alexandria that eventually grows to take on the whole constructed universe of their shared fantasy. Tarsem may have made more use of a wide angle lens than any other director before or since, but he also cut holes in the curtains surrounding Ray’s hospital bed to allow a single camera lens to record the conversation Ray and Alexandria share as she hands over a stolen communion wafer as a gift. ‘Are you trying to save my soul?’ he asks lightly, and then the camera drafts away to show their peaceful, tent like seclusion in the empty ward as in the background, and clearly unscripted, he tries to explain his complicated joke to a non-English speaking six year old.
In another film – perhaps even in a different version of this film – the hospital scenes would have been nothing but a framing device to set off the fireworks of the fantasy world. But in the hands of Lee Pace and Catinca Untaru, they are its human, beating heart. It’s difficult to imagine this working with any other actor, given Lee Pace has to overcome the danger of Roy seeming like a weak, manipulative and unstable man put within arm’s reach of a vulnerable little girl. But for all Roy’s hidden motives and occasionally cruelties, there is a vulnerability and sincerity that is always present, sometimes, you feel, almost unwillingly. This is a bombastic, unapologetic fantasy epic unrolling itself from the core of a small and lovely story about friendship and the will to survive.
What must making this film have felt like to its six year old, Romanian, untested star? The hospital scenes were filmed sequentially in less than two months, and at the beginning Catinca spoke no English. Phrases were fed to her verbatim, and if she couldn’t get the hang of them in a few takes, then they were changed so that she didn’t sounded rehearsed. You can hear it, especially in the early scenes, when the words seem to float out of her mouth individually like bows on a kite string. By the end she is taller, her front teeth are growing back in, she has found words sturdy enough to argue with Roy. She grows up in front of your eyes. But she wasn’t told how the story would end until she had lived through it, and with the fantasy scene filmed later, she didn’t know what it would look like. She must have been making her own pictures.
The hospital scenes show Alexandria navigating a strange world that is equally full of wonder and confusion, fear and amazement. But was it any different for Catinca? There’s a section in the long, rambling and un-narrated ‘making ofs’ which shows the moment that Tarsem announces to the whole crew that Lee Pace – who had stayed in character as a paraplegic for two months on set – can actually walk. At first you wonder if she understands. Then as he stands her whole face lights up, she beams up into his face like he’s made her a miracle. This film shows better than any I can think of the consistent strangeness of the world that we experience as children, before we begin to understand and forget to wonder, and the hospital provides endless opportunities for new experiences – wondrous, exhilarating, or terrifying. There is the mystery of ice blocks still frozen under a relentless sun, the unsettling night shift liaisons of a nurse and doctor, the menace of a leather clad x-ray technician somewhere between a medieval knight and a plague doctor. She watches a woman pinching the toe of her dead, snake-bitten little boy when the doctor’s back is turned. ‘Wake up’ she hisses, terrified. ‘If you don’t wake up these men will cut you!’ In another, almost throwaway moment, Alexandria observes the upside-down silhouette of a horse seemingly magically projected onto a wall through a keyhole backlit by the setting sun. When everything is strange and new, then might not anything be real?
The director claims that he intended to make the ending even more violent and unequivocally tragic (and the rest of his work – even some of the silly Pepsi adverts – show a fondness for a nasty twist ending), but Catinca wouldn’t let him. How could a child understand why this omniscient creator of the world she was effectively living in make everyone die if, with one stroke, he could allow them to live? So the end is left deliberately open, and we never really know if Ray really did get better and go back to stunt work, as Alexandria believes. I, of course, the eternal optimist (at least as far as the movies go) choose to believe he found catharsis, and moved on, and was well. Alexandria, determined, fierce, saved Ray from himself, and Catinca saves this film from Tarsem, reigned in what may have become just a messy extravaganza by reminding him of what you need beyond the spectacle.
This article probably doesn’t belong on this blog, where I try to dissect why I like this movie or that. There isn’t any particular mystery why I like this film. No matter what genre, what flavour, what style, the best movies for me do what Tarsem did for Catinca – create a whole world, and wrap it around you to stumble through, amazed and unnerved and wondering.