'The Fall': Dreamwork, By Kurt Loder

Tarsem Singh's world of visions.

"The Fall" is a movie with a Look. It looks like two hours of high-end perfume commercials. Really beautiful perfume commercials, though, and no wonder. The Indian director, Tarsem Singh, is best known for his 1991 music video for R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion," and for his previous feature, the outré 2000 creepfest "The Cell." However, Tarsem actually sustains himself professionally by shooting commercials of the high-end sort. So for the past 11 years, while amassing frequent-flier miles in the service of Levi's, Smirnoff and Coca-Cola, he also scouted locations for this film in places like China, Brazil, Romania, Egypt, South Africa, Fiji and Nepal (to name about a third of them). He shot various bits along the way and then, four years ago, began working in earnest, on an indie budget, with a cast of capable, low-profile actors. The result is one of the more gorgeous movies of recent years, and if its ending weren't located about 30 minutes past the point where one might wish it to be, that could have been enough.

The story is set in Los Angeles in 1915. Hollywood is in its infancy, and a stuntman named Roy (Lee Pace) is languishing in pain in a small hospital, unable to walk after riding his horse off a bridge while shooting a western. Roy is feeling doubly dismal. Apart from being paralyzed, he broods about the fact that the movie's leading man, a slick-haired weasel named Sinclair (Daniel Caltagirone), has stolen Roy's girlfriend. A pretty nurse named Evelyn (Justine Waddell) tries to spread a little sunshine, but Roy remains resolutely suicidal. Then he meets another patient, a five-year-old girl named Alexandria (Catinca Untaru, a Romanian cutie making her first, excellent attempt at acting). Roy tries to manipulate Alexandria into stealing a bottle of morphine tablets for him. In return, he says, he'll tell her "an epic story." The girl gets the pills, then has to keep Roy sufficiently preoccupied with inventing the epic that he won't have time to think about offing himself with an overdose.

The story Roy tells sprawls extravagantly. It involves a character called the Black Bandit, whom we see to be Roy himself; a beautiful princess who's a ringer for Nurse Evelyn; and a hateful villain named Odious, who bears a powerful resemblance to the hateful, girl-thieving Sinclair. In his search for Odious, whom he intends to terminate, the Black Bandit leads a small troupe of loyal fighters — among them, for some reason, Charles Darwin (Leo Bill). Darwin's monkey is on hand, too. And Alexander the Great puts in an appearance early on, lost in the desert wearing a fantastical black helmet with billowing scarlet plumage.

The story proceeds in a succession of rich, painterly images. (There's a nod to Escher at one point; and, at another, what seems like an echo of the lonely slanting light of Edward Hopper's "Early Sunday Morning.") As the Bandit and his men pursue Odious around the world, we're engulfed in a profusion of uncanny sights. There's a vast blue city. There's a solitary palace in the middle of a lake. There's a tribe of mud men, a hill of black-clad corpses, and a room of polished marble filled with madly twirling dervishes. A wagon moves through the desert on huge wheels within which slaves clamber like hamsters. A tree splits open in flames, and a dreadlocked man walks out.

There's so much to see and marvel at in "The Fall" that it's hard to keep track of the story, which in any event, as I say, goes on too long. The movie recalls Fellini a little and Jodorowsky a lot; but Tarsem has resonant visions of his own. The picture is like a great museum you can't find your way out of — it wears you down. Too bad the director couldn't provide an earlier exit.

Check out everything we've got on "The Fall."

Head here for Kurt Loder's review of "Speed Racer."

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