I couldn’t decide what was my favourite of Tarsem Singh’s work, it was between The Cell and The Fall. Instead of making life difficult for myself and closely scrutinizing both films in order to make a well researched and informed decision, I decided to write about both. Despite the very different plots of these two films, there is actually a lot of similarities between them. Singh is clearly a fan of interweaving fantasy with reality, and it is even more clear that he utilises this as an opportunity to flex his cinematographic muscles.
I first saw Singh’s The Cell at the early age of 14, luckily, back then I wasn’t the easily disturbed type and I immediately fell in love with the cinematography, the sets and costumes, at that point in my life I had not seen a film as beautiful to look at as The Cell. Interestingly, The Cell and The Fall had different cinematographers working on them, Paul Laufer worked on The Cell whereas Colin Watkinson worked on The Fall. I say this is interesting because both films are quite similar visually and clearly this is down to Tarsem Singh’s artistic direction, and that visual direction derives from someone who began his career working on music videos. I hear you pretentious types scoffing but I personally feel that music videos are probably one of the best ways to develop and hone a person’s visual direction. I say this as someone who has absolutely no experience in making music videos. Quite simply, you have a few minutes to tell a story and to make it “look good”, I can imagine that there are few better ways to develop an understanding of how to create something that is visually striking. Singh was best known for directing R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” music video, which went on to win six MTV’s Video Music Awards including “Video of the Year”.
Sadly, it would seem some people feel Tarsem’s work is more style over substance, I think the only film that I could partially agree with that is Immortals (2011), which was a bit of a weak film, but it was still a fun watch and again was another piece of eye candy.
Catharine Deane: Do you believe there is a part of yourself, deep inside in your mind, with things you don’t want other people to see? During a session when I’m inside, I get to see those things.
I can understand that some would maybe be turned off by the disturbing subject matter of The Cell, but Singh actually attempts to depict the mind of a serial killer in a much more original manner than most of the many films that have ventured down that path. I feel the grimmer aspects of the story were padded by the films visual execution, maybe at points you would want to turn away, but how can you when Singh serves up such rich and lavish imagery to draw your eyes in. Nevertheless, I believe The Cell has a lot more to offer than incredible visuals. The story and concept is original and way ahead of its time, all the actors give an impressive performance. I remember being hugely surprised by Jennifer Lopez’ acting ability at a time when I only knew her from the music that she made, and having a strong, empowering and compassionate female figure as the main protagonist was refreshing.
The Cell takes the classic “race against time” trope and skips over the overdone FBI agents pouring over evidence scenes and ventures into the actual interesting stuff. Singh is successful in reeling the audience in, not only are you invested in whether they find Stargher’s (Vincent D’Onofrio) victim but you are invested in Catherine’s (Lopez) journey into Stargher’s mind. The action, pacing, the gorgeous Dali-esque imagery, the story and the subsequent happy ending all add to what is close to a perfect film for me. The Cell is entertaining, original, stunning and is definitely a film I can keep watching.
The Fall has very beautiful visuals as well but I love it more for its plot. I stumbled upon The Fall without knowing it was Singh’s work, but I immediately recognised it as his work and was staggered by the charming and poignant story of an unlikely friendship, heartbreak and loss. What was also impressive about The Fall was that Singh was unable to acquire financial backing for the film, maybe because it wasn’t commercial enough for Hollywood’s liking, but Singh decided to go ahead and make it anyway. He felt strongly enough about this story to fund the project himself. To be able to produce visuals like that on such a strict budget it amazing.
Despite the again gorgeous cinematography, what keeps me re-watching The Fall is the touching friendship between the good-natured Alexandria (Catinca Untaru) and the broken Roy (Lee Pace). Roy, a severely injured stunt man meets Alex in a Los Angeles Hospital. What starts off as Roy’s ploy to trick Alex to bring him morphine so he can end his life turns into a friendship that gives Roy a new outlook on life.
Alexandria: You always stop at the same part, when it’s very beautiful. Interesting.
When Roy asks Alex to get him the morphine pills, unaware of what the consequences of her actions will be, Alex demands a trade, she will get him the pills if Roy tells her a story. What envelops is a fascinating tale that intertwines Roy’s feelings of heartbreak and revenge with a fantastical adventure of justice and love. As Roy experiences catharsis through his tale, Alexandria begins to understand his sadness and is determined to give Roy a reason to live.
Singh masterfully juxtaposes Roy’s epic and extravagant story with the miserable and uneventful reality of the hospital ward all the way to its climactic ending. Catinca blew me away with her debut performance, and Lee Pace’s vulnerable depiction of Roy was touching. Singh created a film that was not only visually moving but emotionally moving and I cannot recommend it enough.