– The following is the seventh of ten planned online discussions between MATCH CUTS and THE FILMIST regarding the best films of the 2000’s. These transcriptions have been slightly edited due to length, but the published content remains exactly as written.
THE FILMIST: The Fall was a film I’d first seen mentioned here and there online. I didn’t recognize the name in the director’s chair at first, but then I realized that it was the guy who’d done The Cell, and my interest gradually began to perk up. And – then, I didn’t hear about it for several months, until around August of 2008, after it had been released in theaters, when the reviews came pouring in – most of them good, a few of them middling. My brother and I made the long trek across town to the Angelika to see it, and – well, we weren’t disappointed. The Fall is the film that Salvador Dali – or, any other and better Surrealist artist – would have made if they’d had the funds and the resources. Constantly and intentionally dreamlike and lyrical, especially in it’s last half-hour – and, speaking of Dali, he also seems to be referenced visually quite a bit throughout the course of the film, in the red mask of the young girl and the structures in the desert.
MATCH CUTS: I found The Fall on DVD, mostly because I had heard nothing but negative reviews, and because I despised The Cell, but the story intrigued me. The Dali-esque visuals definitely come to mind, the strange use of scale and horizons really make the film interesting, but the opening sequence really stands as a beautiful testament to the deep tragedy in the film. Most films use slow motion to gratuitous effect, but this film seems to revel in the subtext of slow motion.
F: Indeed – in contrast to someone like a Lars Von Trier, this film uses it without falling into the trap of the dull artisan, and interestingly enough, the opening sequence also acts as a kind of pre-Oz sequence, where we’re exposed to faces that, at first, are as anonymous as the rest of the frantic workers – and, it’s only when they’re repeated later on in the girl’s fantasy, and indeed when the whole film that they were working on is played for the audience of the hospital at the end, that we can go back and realize just who they are.
MC: Yes, the film folds onto itself a few times, mostly through the use of flashback, or unabashed fantasy, but also through the use of faces. I loved how personal the film becomes. The relationship between Alexandria and Roy really struck me as one of the most unique and convincing in recent film.
F: It’s interesting – and a little disconcerting – when you hear the technique that Tarsem used to gain such a verisimilitude to their relationship. Whenever the young actress was on set, Lee Pace would remain in a wheelchair or in a bed. They really convinced that poor girl that he was paralyzed, and in keeping with that, a few of their scenes together – the scene with the toe, and whether or not he could feel it – were entirely unrehearsed.
MC: I didn’t know that. So her traumatized looks resonate from an actual place of fear, not just performance.
F: That’s how he makes it out, at least.
MC: What specifically about this film made you put it on this very exclusive list? I ask because its certainly one of the more controversial choices between us, a film that unlike many of our others is not universally loved by cinephiles.
F: Well, they’re insane – but seriously, though. This is an artfully composed and constructed film – the relationship between the evolution of the story and the relationship of the two of them, and how those two things are dependent on each other; how the film takes into account the impressions and mythologization of the listener, in the case of the Indian or Charles Darwin; the lyrical and dreamlike mise-en-scene that Tarsem imposes on his fantasy world, which owes much to the Surrealist art of Dali and Earnst, and, which has much – much improved from his role as director of The Cell, along with the tying together of the real and the not-real.
MC: Absolutely, all of those elements are wonderfully represented. I think there was a certain hangover from The Cell that tainted this film’s success. But Tarsem definitely has evolved from that first film. I especially think it’s evident in his pacing, which is pretty complex, going back and forth between “reality” and alternate, fantastical fable. I appreciate how difficult this is, and in a film based around the imagination, it’s quite an achievement.
F: A lot of the negative reception that the film garnered at the time of it’s release seems kind of – flimsy, now. I mean, in most of the reviews that I’ve read, they’ll call the director “pretentious,” and – in a few cases – they’ll even start mudslinging at the little girl. And, that’s just mean-spirited, I think.
MC: Those comments miss the point. Many critics stick with what they know and never deviate, so someone like Tarsem that is challenging the boundaries of visual spacing, with a truly dynamic use of color, comes across as too much, too challenging for critics who have pre-conceptions. I think many people went in with their minds made up. I certainly had reservations, but the film won me over with its certain charm, honesty toward the dynamics of the imagination, and the constant darkness hiding beneath, with the suicide undercurrent.
F: Yes, indeed – and, it’s there that I think the film’s approach to the metaleptic relationship between the storyteller and the listener becomes clear. In that third act, as everything becomes morose, and the dark undercurrents and moods that had pursed through the story come out onto the top – we’re revealed the identity of this General Odious the men have been chasing, and it’s the lead actor of his film, who stole his woman. And – he’s constantly belittling and thrashing Lee Pace’s character – it’s only after the young girl seems to be able to get through to Roy that her influence on the tale gains real footing.
MC: I think this film will gain more acclaim as time goes on, maybe even if Tarsem continues to evolve as a filmmaker. It’s a very concise piece of filmmaking, one that really explores the detail of special effects and color far more so than other Hollywood heavyweights, Michael Bay and Tony Scott.
F: His next film coming up is probably going to go some distance toward garnering that acclaim – War of the Gods, which sounds like the most forwardly-driven of his films yet. It also seems to be a pure fantasy, which is interesting.
MC: Tarsem’s visuals relay the best Fantasy has to offer, so hopefully that film will show even more of what he has to offer the genre.
F: Let’s just hope it gets done within the next four years or so.
MC: So Michael Haneke couldn’t be farther from Tarsem in terms of mise-en-scene, utilizing a sparing, menacing, brutal outlook for his films. For me, Time of the Wolf is his greatest film because it so thoroughly charts the demise of humanity in the face of global chaos, played out on a personal level.
F: The beginning of the film is a certainly a shocking introduction to the implied post-apocalypse that he sets up – with the husband, in the middle of negotiations with the two intruders in their country home, being shot in the face, followed by the long shot of his wife reacting, and vomiting. It’s a very stark, ‘splash of cold water,’ and introduces us to the theme of quickly dissolving trusts and empathy in this new, sparse world.
MC: Also, the use of off-screen violence, a Haneke staple, really introduces us to the jarring focus of the film, that the most horrific acts often happen just outside of the frame, just on the horizon.
F: Indeed – although, I think the use of implication is used in a far harder fashion here than in any of his earlier or later films. Especially in that opening sequence. And, then the camera cuts outside to their kids, peeking in the door. The real struggles seem to be simply trying to run down a train, or stay warm – in a way, this seems a lot like the film that Hillcoat’s The Road should’ve been.
MC: We get the sense that the characters always know more about the situation, the world, the apocalypse than the viewer, and Haneke brilliantly reveals this info slowly, through clues in the dialogue, and I think this has a devastating effect on the emotion being completely stripped from the scenario.
F: The constant, flitting mentions of the livestock and the water – and, the gradual lack of empathy in the film is really epitomized by the scene in the train station, where that woman tells the whole room, and the older lady in front of her whose husband provided her with the latest news most directly, “you’ve got lots of compassion, what good is it to her?”
MC: And even though there’s a character, played by Dardennes stalwart Olivier Gourmet, that is withholding supplies for sex and power, Haneke never gives the film a true villain. Even the racist man ends up saving the boy in the end. The situation itself deteriorates our personalities, bringing out this sort of animal instinct that is tough to witness, but inevitable, it’s what von Trier attempts to achieve, but aside form Dogville, sometimes fails to fully convey.
henry: Indeed – and, we can both agree that von Trier is no Haneke, even though he tries his best to be, on most levels. In fact, his latest, Antichrist, is probably the best example of this. But I digress.
MC: Haneke just plays on a whole other level, a level of seriousness that von Trier doesn’t try to understand. Time of the Wolf is probably the most devastating end-of-the-world film I’ve seen, because it takes this family, cuts around their moments of emotional catharsis, and focuses on their primal survival, the moment when the boy ventures out from the farmhouse into the pitch darkness is mesmerizing because it basically deconstructs the world down to the audio, then contrast that with the extreme of the barn burning down, the use of extremes in this film just gets under my skin.
F: Indeed – and, the way that Haneke gives us occasional glimpses of some sort of primitive and roaming supply-based feudalism building up, with the people on horseback trading clean water for the few goods they have, and the occasional scenes of calamity in the rain and in the firelit crowds.
MC: He references the bigger picture with these small moments of character interaction, like two factions coming into contact with each other momentarily, slightly clarifying the chaos happening around the country. It’s economical filmmaking at its best.
F: There’s a moment that really seems to clarify this film’s whole attitude, the one you just referenced, and it comes right before the rain storm – when the mother sees the couple that had killed her husband at the beginning of the film, and they’re seeming as lost as anyone else – when her attention is again caught by the sound of a rifle shot, this time knocking down a horse, which Haneke then follows by showing it get it’s throat slit.
MC: It’s one of the few jarring moments of violence that we actually get to see, and it just confounds the narrative situation that typical storytellers would play up, the revenge factor that just can’t exist when the world is ending. It’s the one moment Haneke could have gotten some closure for this family, but chooses not to because what’s the point? We are all going to die anyways in this terrible scenario.
F: Exactly that – however, I will say this: I could’ve done without the shots of pale boy ass near the end, if I’m being juvenile for a second or two.
MC: Well, that kid is really the heart and soul of this film, the future, and his attempt at sacrifice shows how bad this situation has gotten. Haneke loves to challenge the notion of what’s acceptable, and that scene really speaks to the elemental nature of this brutal movie.
F: True – it’s an uncompromising film, to be sure, and stark to a degree that few movies are, nowadays. A live action Plague Dogs on a wider, post-apocalyptic scale. I have to wonder, though, if he’ll remake this one for American audiences sometime in the future, as well.
MC: Hopefully not, his US Funny Games was completely pointless, indulgent beyond comprehension. But Time of the Wolf is far less sensational than Funny Games, so I doubt it would appeal as a remake to Western audiences. I find it interesting that Time of the Wolf is often ignored in the grand canon of Haneke films. I’ve seen Funny Games, Cache, even Code Unknown on some people’s best of the decade lists, and in my opinion, this film is his most ambitious.
F: I’d agree with that – and, no Michael Pitt, to boot.
MC: I think the ending really sets this film apart from the rest of Haneke’s great films, that POV shot from the train, moving, arriving or departing, it really doesn’t matter. The mere fact that the train is in motion is victory enough for Haneke, and for the viewer. The open range of forrest, calm quiet, the barest essentials of a life toward salvation, something the rest of the film hasn’t given us.
F: Indeed – and, it’s telling that it comes right after the boy’s aborted sacrifice, and he lets the emotions he’s been bottling up out onto the man’s shoulder in front of the fire.
MC: The use of extreme weather and natural elements, the fire, the consuming fog and darkness, this just serves the narrative so well, literally obscuring everything we need to recognize, that contrasted with the calm ending shot, really shows a transition that I find beautiful. But then again, like many of the other films on my list, it makes the viewer work, makes the audience think about these specific aesthetic decisions, which really creates this ambiguous situation that both horrifies and fascinates me.
F: Oh, indeed – there a few other ways I could see that final sequence, in the context of what’s come before, but ultimately, it does seem like a signal of hope, with the idyllic fields in the bright of day contrasting with the grim and gray train stations and tracks that have long been obscured under clouds and darkness.
MC: I guess for me, optimism is essential after a movie like this.
F: Well, of course – I think, in most but not all instances, movies that abolish any thread of hope in this dark situations just come off as overly cynical. This film, while it’s triumph isn’t overt at first glance, doesn’t fall into that trap.
MC: Thankfully, and it gives Haneke a bit of a soul for a filmmaker that is consistently lambasted for his cold, cynical view of life and death.
F: Quite so, quite so.