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17 September 2015updated 26 Jul 2021 9:45am

Carol Morley’s The Falling: an aesthetic exploration of the heartbreak of growing up

“It feels like you’re blacking out. Dying.”

By Anna Leszkiewicz

“We’re not kids anymore, Lamb.” So Abbie (Florence Pugh), says to Lydia (Maisie Williams) in Carol Morley’s The Falling, a dizzying, disorienting film about growing up, mortality, and the extreme bonds of teenage friendship. These are well-trodden areas for many coming-of-age films, but Morley’s drama (now available on iTunes after a limited theatrical release earlier this year) handles these themes with a strangeness that makes them seem new.

Set in 1968, it follows these two Best Friends, whose relationship is characterised by the competitiveness and romance that is the preserve of teenage girls. Both students at a prestigious girls’ school nestled in an idyllic pastoral setting, Abbie is blonde, lightly freckled and impossibly beautiful; Lydia dark and forbidding (played with twitchy brilliance by Williams). They share cruel jokes and chewing gum, and play with each other’s hair. When Abbie starts having sex (with Lydia’s brother Kenneth, amongst others) it provokes an awkwardness and betrayal in Lydia that neither are fully able to compute. “You think we’re over, don’t you,” Lydia spits. “Admit it!”

But Abbie’s sexual discoveries have far more severe narrative consequences than this lovers’ tiff. Abbie soon realises she is pregnant, faints in the canteen, and, within days, suddenly collapses and dies.

The Falling wrestles with the aftermath of this incident, as Lydia, and a small group of her and Abbie’s closer friends, soon show symptoms echoing Abbie’s in her final days. An outbreak of fainting sweeps across the school, as girls faint at home, in class, and in assembly. Frightened by the disruptive power of this mass hysteria, the school’s headmistress, played wonderfully by Monica Dolan, attempts to silence them.

Carol Morley has written at length about her fascination with such mysterious outbreaks. But The Falling is more of an aesthetic exploration of the heartbreak of growing up than it is an accurate or detailed analysis of psychogenic illness. Morley cites The Virgin Suicides as an influence, and, just as that film creates an atmosphere in order to tap into a state of mind rather than realistic portrait of depression, the magic of Morley’s film lies in its textured surface.

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The fainting is sometimes a sudden, rigid falling, sometimes more like a smooth dance. From the beginning, it’s explicitly linked to sex. “He said the French call an orgasm a small death,” Abbie tells Lydia after she sleeps with Kenneth. “That’s what it’s like, you know, when a guy’s inside you and you get it right. It feels like you’re blacking out. Dying.”

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For Lydia, growing up feels a lot like dying, too. The Falling is a mediation on innocence, and what it means to lose it. The film’s title casts the shadow of the biblical Fall across every scene. When Abbie dies, so too does Lydia’s childish nickname, Lamb. But both Morley and her characters resist a simplistic, old-fashioned understanding of what innocence means.

The teachers, concerned for and scared of their pupils in equal measure, try their hardest to enforce a strict conception of feminine innocence on the girls. They are given recipes to memorise, and told to be less dramatic when reciting poetry. Lovebites are eyed with searing disapproval. “Skirts,” we are told, “should be no more than two inches from the floor when kneeling”. A voiceover eerily preaches, “The devil can enter you in many ways, so please cross your legs.”

But this superficial understanding of girlish innocence, and the rampant sexuality that supposedly threatens it, is not what torments Lydia and her friends. For Lydia, Abbie’s death intensifies a feeling that her world is becoming less fluid, less comprehensible, and increasingly dark. When she mutters, “Nobody knows who I am anymore. What I’m really like”, we are left feeling that even Lydia’s own self is progressively unfamiliar to her. Morley uses Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality”, to tap into her consciousness: both before and after her death, Abbie’s mournful voice recites, “I know, where’er I go, / That there hath pass’d away a glory from the earth.”

Morley explores this tension visually: shots of the lush, prelapsarian school grounds, with “the glory and freshness of a dream”, fade gently into close-ups of Abbie’s soft hair, before being harshly interrupted by Lydia hitting her head against a wall, or the sound of stern court shoes on wooden floors. Surreal images of bloodied hands flash onto the screen for split seconds, disappearing before the audience can process them.

It’s never clear whether the outbreak of hysterical fainting is a voluntary act or something uncontrollable, but regardless of intention, it works as a kind of rebellion for Lydia and her classmates. Embodying their teachers’ worst nightmares about uninhibited teenage hormones, the girls often faint at suspiciously inconvinient moments. Lydia walks up to her headmistresses defiantly, and, with a spasm that could be a challenging wink, collapses to the ground. 

The swooning climax of the film sees an entire hall of girls writhing on top of each other with a near-sexual intensity, cutting short a talk from a guest speaker on “accidents in the home”. It’s an enormous middle finger to the responsible, domestic, virginial girl the school would have them emulate. When doctors are brought in to try and cure them, Lydia persuades the other girls not to take their medicine. “It’s us and them,” she insists. “Kill the system, it’s killing you!”

But as the girls feel more and more isolated from their surroundings, themselves, and each other, the faintings also function as a kind of radical empathy. Lydia mimics Abbie’s subtle symptoms, but also her mannerisms: a hand raised to touch the skin under her eye, a game where she puts a finger in her friend’s mouth. An incestuous relationship begins between Lydia and Kenneth: even this seems like an attempt by Lydia to reach out to the friend she has lost.

When Lydia is hospitalised, a doctor interviews her about her symptoms. “I feel—I feel—it—I—I f—I feel…” she stutters, overburdened by emotion, in a moment reminiscent of Wordsworth’s line, “I feel—I feel it all.” In a note on the Immortality Ode, Wordsworth recalled that when young, 

I was often unable to think of external things as having external existence & I communed with all that I saw as something not apart from but inherent in my own immaterial nature. Many times while going to school I have grasped at a wall or tree to recall myself from this abyss of idealism to the reality. At that time I was afraid of such processes.

Lydia finds herself teetering on the brink of a similar “abyss of idealism” throughout. Before she dies, Abbie and Lydia carve their initials into an oak tree on their school grounds. During an outdoors art class, the girls lounge on the hillside by the tree in the rain in happy silence. They declare they will meet underneath it on the same day, every year, forever. But only days later, Abbie dies. Like the Ode’s “tree, of many, one”, it comes to speak “of something that is gone”.

Morley layers images of Lydia’s fingers picking holes in the wall of the girls’ bathroom or clawing at the trunk of the oak tree as she struggles to maintain a sense of her immediate reality. Lydia’s final breakdown sees her attempt to take this concept of the egotistical sublime to a literal extreme: throwing herself against and from the tree, shouting Abbie’s name into the dark, proclaiming herself finally “free” and “conscious”.

At the film’s close, the source of the fainting, and the motives of the girls, remain ambiguous. But the final lines return to Wordsworth’s Ode, hinting at a more supernatural origin:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar

Now listen to Anna talking about The Falling on SRSLY, the pop culture podcast from the New Statesman:

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