The greatest special effect is the close-up. Every vista pales in comparison with the human face. Because without that face – what do you connect with? What moves you? The desert might be a character in Lawrence of Arabia, but its performance is opaque. What makes Lawrence is Peter O’Toole. The same way – in Apocalypse Now – Marlon Brandon shows you what the jungle is thinking. In director Tarsem Singh’s breathtaking movie, The Fall, there are sights that equal anything David Lean or Francis Ford Coppola accomplished. And there is also a little girl (Catinca Untaru), whose face knocks every other wonder into a cocked hat.
The story is about a stuntman in Hollywood in the 1920s. He has fallen, both literally and metaphorically (the movie – while breathtaking – isn’t subtle). He’s in hospital. A famous actor has seduced the stuntman’s girl. Of all his injuries, this cuckolding is the worst. The stuntman becomes addicted to morphine. Bedridden, it’s hard for him to maintain a constant supply. He befriends a little girl (hospitalized after – you guessed it – a fall) as a ruse so she’ll steal morphine for him. In return for her help, the little girl keeps bugging the stuntman to tell her a story. He does – and it’s breathtaking – but as the story unfolds, the morphine takes over…
Tarsem Singh spent four years making The Fall. In eighteen countries. With his own money. And Catinca Untaru still steals the show. In interview, the director speaks of how he couldn’t have made the movie till he found the right girl. And he was right. When a movie is this dazzling, it needs reality. Untaru has never acted before. With luck, she will never act again. Not for Sophia Coppola-type reasons, but because: she’ll never be this good. Non-actors get one shot at a perfect performance. Then they become actors. There are reaction shots The Fall catches from Untaru that one actor in a million could replicate. Tarsem Singh’s best decision was to let this little girl dictate how every other actor behaves. When Lee Pace (the stuntman) is with her, you’re watching an actor unlearn acting. And be better for it. Because acting is play time. Would that every movie had the luxury of children playing children instead of “child actors”.
So what do we see? Some examples: the desert; a wall of sand that looks a thousand feet high; a lone rider like an ink smear on the dunes. Or how about an island in the shape of a butterfly; blissfully white; set it in a billowing blue ocean. Or a dead tree sprouting into flames. Or an aqueduct designed by M.C. Escher. Or a wedding couple ringed by whirling Dervishes. Or tiny birds flying out of a man’s mouth. Or – Beauty. In essence. The Fall is “the full meal” (as a wise teacher of mine once phrased it). It is absurd, sensual and (my favourite) unabashed. It puts me in mind of movies like The Fountain, where the audience has to have the right appetite. You either gorge on such movies or you’re bored by them. Cynics will only gag.
While spirituality might seem ham-fisted in Singh’s handling of it (“Are you trying to save my soul?” the stuntman asks, repeatedly), like Darren Aronofsky, the soul of his movie isn’t there in words, it’s grasped holistically, through the movie. To put it another way, The Fall would be about the soul if the stuntman and the little girl talked about cornflakes. Like a great song which leaps the boundaries of its form; the message isn’t the words, it’s the music.
It’s easy to wear-out a word like “breathtaking”. How good can it be? we long to sneer. But great movies come from a director’s childish awe at the world. You can’t make great movies if the world doesn’t amaze you. How else to explain the power of the close-up? To look at something so intently that – for a few seconds, a lifetime – it engulfs you. Human faces are the best kept secrets told by close-ups. Most of us still retain the capacity to be awed by a desert or an ocean. And the deserts and oceans of The Fall are awe-inspiring as any in movies. But that one little girl. We’d miss her. She and everyone else who’s ever given a great performance on-screen. Because great acting is only half of it. For the other half: you have to look close.