Stories within stories are a structure, and a plot device that is probably as old as the notion of telling stories. From Nelly in Wuthering Heights to the Granddad in Princess Bride, we have seen how it plays out in film. Often it is frowned upon as ‘telling not showing’, or it seems needless and is used only as a way to bookend the story being told. However, when done well, it can create stories with a beautiful weave of structure, and reveal aspects of characters we might not otherwise see. Tarsem Singh’s 2006 The Fall is one such success.
The framed story is simple: a little girl who fell and broke her arm is befriended by a stuntman who fell and broke his back, in a hospital in 1915. The girl’s name is Alexandria – played by the Romanian Catinca Untaru – and the stuntman is Roy, played by the wonderful Lee Pace. The strong rapport between the two actors makes for a brilliant base for the film, as the framed story comes from the collaboration of their imaginations. Roy not only has a broken back, but also a broken heart; and though he seems to enjoy Alexandria’s company, ultimately, he is suicidal, and is befriending her to persuade her to get him a morphine overdose.
Initially Roy attempts to tell Alexandria about her namesake, Alexander the Great – however Alexandria is unimpressed and confused by the story, so Roy promises to tell her an ‘epic tale of love and revenge… set in India.’ The ensuing story is vibrant, bonkers and beautiful. Its visual richness is unlike any other film. Though the story is set in India, the locations are borrowed from all over the globe. The film boasts that it was set in over 20 countries; though the diversity and extremeness of these locations could be written off as excessive, it uses that imaginative fluidity of dreams that morphs different people and places into one another. This is additionally supported by the melodramatic and theatrical story, which changes as Roy and Alexandria add and retract different elements.
Roy draws inspiration from his love life, having the villain of his story, Governor Odious, played by his real-life love rival. Roy’s story is about five different men who have all sworn to kill Governor Odious to avenge the wrongs Odious caused them. The characters in Roy’s story, with the exception of Odious, are played by people from Alexandria’s life, and this, in conjunction with Alexandria’s interjections, make the story a collaborative effort. And that is one of the reasons the story is so ridiculous: it is subject to the whims of a 9-year-old and a suicidal paraplegic. And that is why, for a lot of people, the film was a mess. Though it could perhaps be said that the pacing of the framed story might lag, and makes the already restless watcher a bit more so. It is hardly a mess – and it could be solidly argued to be intentional.
What perhaps is upsetting to some is the expectation that the frame, the ‘real world’ story in the hospital, will give way to the ‘real story’ of the bandits, as often happens. However, the outer story, and the framed story, are much more intertwined than that; one influences the other. Not only do Roy and Alexandria manipulate the characters in their story, but the characters in their story start to bleed into the frame. This is largely because Roy isn’t just entertaining Alexandria because one or both of them are bored; he is doing it because he wants the morphine. It is this simple change in character drive that stops the focus only being on the framed story. In this way the framed narrative influences the outer story, because Alexandria does try to get the morphine, and she and Roy become friends.
The strong structure is supported by some of cinema’s most striking images. In an interview with The Times of India Singh explained that whilst growing up he was exposed to films in languages he did not know so he ‘reacted to the images’. This, combined with a profound love and respect of Bollywood’s commitment to fantasy, has led The Fall to be worth watching solely for its visual delights. Wide shots dwarf the characters, making the framed story epic, not just in its structure but also in its beauty. The composition is impeccable and turns moments of gore into horribly intriguing scenes; the red chandelier made out of the recently deceased, and a character lying on the arrows that killed him. And it is this composition that leads to another triumph of the film: the inventive match cuts. Not only are these delightful, but they also support the fluidity of the dreamlike story telling.
To criticise The Fall is to throw out a heartfelt gift. Tarsem Singh has made a film that is ostentatiously unique, and would be described as experimental, if the outcome didn’t seem so complete and well-realised. For all its whimsy, The Fall is thoughtful and well-grounded, emotional, dark – and a bit insane. When all is said and done The Fall is one of the most cinematic films on offer; for any lover of the medium, it is a must-watch.
Tarsem Singh’s latest film Self/Less is released in cinemas this Friday 17th July.