MAD: The Fall

(2006 Roadside Attractions/Watched on DVD)

This is from Tarsem Singh, director of The Cell, for which we have recorded a SCORCHING review podcast. I did not know the first thing about it (which is that it was directed by Tarsem Singh) before going in. He also directed Immortals, a bizarre combination of 300 and Clash of the Titans.

I know him for his striking visual style and his inhuman coldness, not unlike Refn or Villeneuve, which means that before we even started I was certain that he would be short on the tools required to reach me as a filmmaker, leaning too heavily on skills that leave me less impressed without that key humanity.

In a hospital in Los Angeles in the 1920s a bedridden man tells a young girl with a broken arm swashbuckling stories complete with vividly realised, visually striking imagery. Soon these stories veer wildly into scenarios that directly contradict history, throwing Charles Darwin in with Alexander the Great, rendered in Singh’s customary blend of Japanese, Greek, Indian and Chinese cultural influences. Honestly this guy should direct a Soul Calibur movie.

Far too much of the film is mumbled. A lot of it in thick accents discussing things that we, a contemporary cinema audience rather than Macedonian scribes are unfamiliar with. One of the benefits of a good facial close up with ample volume is that you can both read the lips of the subject and hear what’s being said as it it is written in the script. I didn’t think I’d have to explain that one this year, but here we are. The words get lost in proceedings so frequently and everything goes by in such a dreamlike manner, defying cause and effect that sometimes it sounds like they’re speaking SIMlish.

The play within the play is unintelligible, but damn if Tarsem doesn’t take us all on an extraordinary vacation while it’s being told. He picks out amazingly vibrant architecture and shoots it and the array of absurdly dressed, colourful and distinctive characters from obtuse angles. It ends up feeling superficially similar in tone and screen composition to a Wes Anderson picture, just without his amazing gifts for screenplay and screen play.

The saviours are twofold; Lee Pace, a man we’ve mostly seen as humourless and untouchable with Ronan the Accuser and King Thranduil in Guardians of the Galaxy and the Hobbit. Here he is charming and vulnerable as a man afraid he will never regain feeling in his legs, fear which develops greatly over the run time. The second is Cantica Untaru as the little girl, Alexandria, who is endlessly inquisitive, compassionate, stubborn, fiercely altruistic and as real as the events detailed are fictional. There is a clear reason for that, Singh convinced most of his cast that Pace really could not walk and as far as this six year old girl was concerned he was telling her a story she was getting very involved with so her responses are improvised and genuine. It’s fairly extraordinary to watch with this in mind, especially when you consider that after all the hospital scenes were done he went and filmed the fantasy and the whole production took four years to finish.

As things unfold it becomes increasingly apparent that like The Wizard of Oz/Sucker Punch/Pan’s Labyrinth/Regular Labyrinth elements from the real world are being used as building blocks for the fantasy, including the customary *actors playing dual roles*. What surprised me was that despite the mumbling incoherence, when crisis strikes in the real world I found myself horribly invested, really genuinely hoping for a way out of a scary series of sobering, tangible medical situations.

I actually won’t spoil the way things go as sadly virtually nobody has seen this film, it made no money at all, and it behoves me to recommend it. This was in turn suggested to me by someone on Twitter named Peter, and I’m grateful to him for pointing me in this direction. Tarsem Singh will almost certainly find mainstream success, but this film does have a big, beating heart beneath that dazzling exterior, and more besides. It taps into something unexpected regarding the visual language, personality and heritage of film.

It’s easy to say he needs a superhero movie, but I think with the fact that he seems to want to tell epic tales of indeterminate time and a strong cocktail of ancient cultures combining amazing colour with raw physicality… Conan. Get him on story but not script, and maybe consider making it entirely unspoken. It would be extraordinary, it would be celebrated, it would make… twenty-six million dollars!

Author: Alex Shaw

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