It’s said that stories help clarify the stupefying succession of years we call life—so that we see it truly, live it honestly, face it nobly. Even tales of the grimmest matter are not meant as prose fugues, as lyrical anesthesia for the meek or desperate. Literature is equipment for living, said Kenneth Burke, and a narrative fails when it brings no news. A story to die by is a paradox, and a perverse one at that.
Roy Walker, the hero in Tarsem Singh’s visually stunning film The Fall, doesn’t see it that way. A stuntman in 1920s Hollywood, Walker (Lee Pace) has been crippled in a riding accident, and spends his time in a Catholic convalescent home next to a working orange grove. His career seemingly over, he’s lost the love of his life—literally and figuratively—and will brook no consolation.
Also in the hospital is Alexandria (the matchless Catinca Untaru), a Romanian child recovering from a broken arm suffered while toiling in the orchard. Unlike Roy, Alexandria sparkles with life; she has the run of the grounds, knows everyone, plays everywhere—all the while carrying a box of objects that have struck her imagination. They are the stuff her mind works upon, as she is an artist from the very floor of her soul. Although a child, her nascent instincts display themselves in what she notices: camera obscura images of horses (significantly) projected on the wall; the shutter-like displacement of her finger when she switches from one closed eye to the other; the power of missives; the taste of ice.
Inexorably, Alexandria crosses paths with Roy, and the confluence of their imaginations begins, though with different objectives. As she sits beside the man, Roy secures a promise of help in exchange for a story he’ll tell. Alexandria wants the thing itself, the sheer imaginative delight of it, rich and delectable as the oranges that fill her world. Roy, on the other hand, wants to die. As a kind of reverse Scheherazade, his episodic delivery is meant to tie the child to him, so that she becomes the legs he needs to find the poison he craves. The story becomes a way by which he can secure less time, not more; purchase his grave, not his life.
Through Roy’s dulcet tones, the tale unfolds daily in Alexandria’s mind, involving a mystic, a naturalist (Charles Darwin), a slave, an anarchist, a bandit, and an Indian—all chasing a common foe who has cost each something that he loved. Singh’s artistry is as lush as an opera staging, the surreality of a child’s dreamscape—arresting spaces and bold colors—mountains, caverns, banners, oceans, elephants, all working within the ever-changing courses of glorious fancy.
Part of the film’s power lies in its meta-storytelling. The exchange between teller and listener, the personal impression the story makes, is exemplified when Roy speaks of “Indians,” which for the European child mean Hindus, not Navajos; when Roy tells of the bandit and his love, the two become Roy himself and the lovely nurse who rocks Alexandria to sleep. People from the real world populate her conjurings. What’s more, the girl intuits the story’s parallel in life; the referent is not some cheap analogy, but a portrait of genuine suffering. Her comprehension is strengthened by the way that she sees.
For without imagination, we are slaves to facts, strapped to bald truths; hopeless. So when Roy asks her to go behind his curtained-off feet, pinch a toe, and tell him if he’s guessed right, Alexandria lies. The man is immersed in practicalities, sodden with realism; they are defeating him; killing him. He needs courage enough to imagine endurance—to survive the tale, not end it. Knowing the man’s melancholy, Alexandria steals the Eucharist for him, feigning ignorance when he asks if she’s trying to feed his soul.
While the unwitting girl is made part of a strategic death-wish, she also becomes part of its frustration. Alexandria can pull Roy from the brink he rushes toward through the power of the narrative. Near the tale’s close, beside himself with anguish, he insists he can end things however he wants.
“It’s my story” he says, childlike in his petulance.
“No,” she replies, understanding that all falls are shared, “It’s mine, too.”