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Once in a lifetime

A child's unearthly performance is at the heart of this brilliant directorial effort

<strong>The F

They say you should never work with children, animals or Jennifer Lopez, but one man has done all three. The lunatic in question is the Indian director who has elected to be billed simply as Tarsem, thereby placing himself in the company of other mono-monikered legends - Pelé, Madonna, Kenzie from Blazin' Squad. Tarsem previously directed The Cell, in which J-Lo roamed inside the mind of a serial killer without smudging her lipstick, and made his reputation with the video for REM's "Losing My Religion", the one where Michael Stipe dances like an epileptic turkey.

His latest film, The Fall, which has nothing to do with Albert Camus or Mark E Smith, is insanely ambitious, and not just because it was shot in more than 20 countries. What makes it high-risk is that its emotional kick depends on a Romanian newcomer, Catinca Untaru, eight years old when the film was shot. She plays Alexandria, confined to a hospital in 1920s Los Angeles after breaking her arm. There she meets Roy Walker (Lee Pace), who is not, as his name suggests, the host of a crap teatime quiz show, but a stuntman bedridden after an accident on set.

Alexandria confesses she's never been to the flicks. "You're not missing much," shrugs Roy - a pointed joke in a picture so visually lavish that you watch with eyes permanently on stalks.

To alleviate the boredom, Roy spins a tall tale about a band of globe-trotting buccaneers, united by a common enemy and an ability to carry off an array of wacky outfits by the esteemed costume designer Eiko Ishioka. These include: a red-and-black peacock-patterned fur with optional bowler hat and a chain-mail bob with a pair of springbok horns. Available now at your local Primark, or possibly not.

Roy's story, which we see played out in spectacular interludes, is shaped by Alexandria's input: when she voices her disapproval of the hero halfway through, Roy places himself centre-stage instead; when she sneezes, or squirms because she needs the toilet, the heroine in the story sneezes and squirms, too. So far, so Princess Bride. But once the girl is hooked, Roy reveals his price: in return for further instalments, Alexandria must steal morphine for him from the hospital dispensary. As Roy's heartbreak over losing his girlfriend to an actor drags his ripping yarn into unsavoury territory, the girl realises that the happy ending she craves is slipping away. "It's my story!" Roy tells her when she objects to his authorial cruelty. "Mine, too," she shoots back, hinting at the ever-present friction between artist and audience.

The Fall commemorates the point at which film began to assume some of the responsibilities previously held by oral storytelling traditions. The picture's allusions to great moments in cinema - a horse suspended in its harness, from Sergei Eisenstein's October; the Vertigo shot of a woman plummeting from a bell-tower; the Wizard of Oz touch of having characters from Alexandria's daily life reappear in the story-within-the-film - carry such resonance because these are our stories round the campfire, our paintings on cave walls. Tarsem adds his own once-in-a-lifetime images to the pile, from a swimming elephant to an entire town painted non-CGI blue, and a chandelier made of corpses (obvious health and safety issues there, but it looks grand).

Readers with long memories may recall that I sang the praises of The Fall when it played at the 2007 Berlin Film Festival. I watched the picture again this past week, lest my judgement had been impaired by the thrill of attending a festival where, had I so wished, I could have consumed my own weight in sauerkraut. But The Fall remains masterful - an argument for the transformative power of storytelling that wins its own case simply by being brilliant.

At its core is Catinca Untaru's unearthly, technique-free performance, worthy of comparison with David Bennent in The Tin Drum or Linda Manz in Days of Heaven. Apologies to the Dardenne brothers, Ken Loach and anyone else who nurtures spontaneity, but you really haven't witnessed improvisation until you've watched the scene in which Alexandria struggles to understand the word "soul". Judging by this evidence, Tarsem has no such problem.

Pick of the week

Import/Export (18)
dir: Ulrich Seidl
Twisted goings-on in Austria and Ukraine.

Good Dick (15)
dir: Marianna Palka
Video store assistant falls for a porn-obsessed customer.

Heavy Load (12A)
dir: Jerry Rothwell
Documentary about a band with learning difficulties. Whaddya say? Let's boogie!

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 06 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Perils of power