Hyacinth Lee, “part-time library assistant/part-time burlesque idiot,” makes her 10YA debut with Tarsem’s The Fall and finds layers beyond the fantasy.
(It feels oddly appropriate that as I write this, I’m sitting in the home that I occupied 10 years ago, in my hometown, after having some real Big Feelings with my family. Full circle, man.)
I saw The Fall at the tail-end of my junior year in high school. It was, as high school so often is, a wildly trying time. My hometown is small and nothing much ever really happens here. The classic story, ya know—drama kid, big dreams, want to spread your wings, get out of this place, clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose… wait a sec, already getting off track.
I was a fantasizer from an early age. I wanted the world to be grander in every conceivable way and this movie was the kind of grand I NEEDED in my life.
The Fall is astounding. I loved it then and (spoiler alert) I may love it even more now.
Before rewatching this movie after a decade, I made a list of everything I could remember about this film. Most of my list was Lee Pace. It was mostly Lee Pace in a nice smoky eye. Or Lee Pace talking to this little girl and lookin’ like that cute dad you see at the farmer’s market pulling his kiddo around in a red wagon. I also remembered the costumes.
(Oh, and of course I remembered THIS SPECIFIC COSTUME that probably had some hand in me becoming a human-Niffler. A thank you to the late Eiko Ishioka, the costume designer of this film, who is a fucking genius.)
I also could picture the grand spectacle, though the particulars were lost. The scope of the settings. I also remembered a horse. Oh, and Lee Pace. Did I say that?
Don’t get me wrong. I still adore my piemaker queer babe Lee Pace and his eyebrows.
Thinking about you. pic.twitter.com/v5SEgvJjNG
— Lee Pace (@leepace) March 22, 2015
However, this time around, watching The Fall was a very different experience. As a teenager, I clung to the visual beauty and the fantasy. Hospital scenes be damned. As an adult, I found The Fall to be an absolutely heart-wrenching portrayal of the relationship between a child and the adults in her life. The fantasy felt almost secondary. As a teenager, this was my Lee Pace movie. As an adult, I realize that this my sweet baby angel Catinca Untaru’s movie.
The movie (once past the ominous opening credits sequence and the image of the horse being drawn out of the water that is stuck in my brain forever) begins with Alexandria. I was instantly captured, watching how easily Alexandria moves through the microcosm of her hospital world. She’s someone the adults all know and expect, but rarely notice. She licks the ice and the ice-man familiarly tells her not to or she’ll get sick. She sends notes and wanders, and her life at the hospital is changed when the note she sends down to Nurse Evelyn falls into the lap of Roy Walker, a Hollywood stuntman.
Long, stunning-beautifully-crafted-artfully-depicted story short, Roy starts telling Alexandria stories. Those stories are shown in vivid color and detail, shot on location, and they all lead to the story of revenge on the evil Governor Odious (I stan a movie that makes Spaniards the villains because LET’S BE REAL, y’all) by The Indian, Otta Benga, Charles Darwin, Luigi the Explosives Expert, and our mysterious Masked Bandit. Roy starts the storytelling train and Alexandria conducts it.
I have to give The Fall ALL the credit to the way it features its young protagonist. She’s never talked down to, only talked to. Even though we find later that Roy has ulterior motives for telling Alexandria these stories, their interactions are pure and genuine. He answers her questions and he takes her input. When she tells him the Bandit can’t be her father because her father is dead, he changes it. They seem to enjoy each other’s company and have an easy chemistry that is not quite paternalistic nor is it weird or uncomfortable in any way.
Tarsem, in his infinite I-definitely-planned-this-and-didn’t-just-let-things-happen way, didn’t script much of the dialogue between Roy and Alexandria. It could have been a mess, sure, but it wasn’t. Instead we get to see how children can be represented on screen when they’re fully realized characters who get to go through all sorts of emotions and get respect from the adults around them.
One of the sweetest throughlines of this film is the way Alexandria interacts with the old man who takes out his teeth at night. He commiserates with her when she’s scared. He comforts her and gives her googly-googly-googly-strength. I wish we could have seen more of them because his sweetness was almost childlike and he never wanted anything other than what was best for Alexandria.
Watching Alexandria in these interactions, there are so many things about the ways in which we age and change. Alexandria automatically trusts the adults around her, because why would they want anything but what’s right and good for both of them? If he asks her to be a bandit and get his morphin3, then why shouldn’t she? Roy is a man mentally possessed by his own overwhelming sadness, carrying baggage with him that is unfair to put on a child who trusts him. He has every reason to be depressed—when he finds out the morphin3 pills he took were sugar, his reaction is pure anguish and rage and god it hurt so badly.
The scene where Roy, following Alexandria’s fall, starts killing off our heroes because he wants her to know the pain of his life and how he’s not worth her trust and love was nearly unbearable for me to watch this time around. I had a difficult time growing up with adults in my life that demanded that I understand more emotionally then I was capable of at the time. Watching this scene echoed the voice in my head that tells me joy is not within reach because the world is too cruel.
Quick, think of Justine Waddell’s costumes before I get too sad…
I mean, the fantasy world here is still good. It’s great. Like, it’s IDEAL. (Well, except for that mystic. That’s some fantasy blackface and I forgot about that and I’m so not here for that and just needed to put this in here.) This is still one of the most visually impressive movies I’ve ever seen. I mean, duh, that’s like…its thing.
But this time around, I had a different relationship with the fantasy. Fantasy is an escape. This doesn’t mean that I don’t still enjoy the spectacle, but rather that I understand the pain behind it escape. It’s the lie that Roy tells Alexandria to get her to do something for him. But to a child, it can be everything. Alexandria’s fantasy is anchored in her real life. When she hears Roy say “Indian,” she thinks of the man we see at the end of the film with her in the orange groves, and not the Native American that Roy envisioned. (This was a realization for me this time around, as I was so confused when Roy used the words “squaw” and “wigwam” in relation to this character.)
Adults carry meaning far beyond the surface of fantasy. We tell stories separate from ourselves because the reality can unbearable. But what I think this movie does so well and why it’s so compelling to me now is that it shows us the value of hope in a hopeless situation. Alexandria wants to know the end of the story regardless of what happens to her, and she knows in her heart that goodness triumphs. It uses the character of Alexandria to tell us, no, you do not have to give in to despair because life is pain but life is also beauty and love and adventure and the story matters whether or not you want to imbue it with all sorts of meaning.
Alexandria says, “You always stop at the same part when it is very beautiful and interesting,” and it’s a little throwaway line, but it’s her demanding that we continue through the story, despite the rough patches in our way.
My relationship to films like this has changed. It feels cheesy as hell to say it, but fuck it—childlike wonder is something we need to hold on to. Go talk to a five-year-old (who wants to talk to you.) I assure you it will make you a little less cynical about your world.
I love The Fall and I think 16-year-old me would be real stoked that I got to write this. This movie is embedded in my brain and I’m thankful for it.