The Falling: A delicately urgent piece of film
by Thomas Humphrey
- With all its visual playfulness and aural precision, The Falling sees Carol Morley stumble onto something good
Carol Morley’s The Falling [+see also:
interview: Carol Morley
film profile] is one of those films that barely let you settle. Before you've even been told the movie is presented by BBC Films and the BFI, this UK production bathes you in mellifluous, poetic singing. Next, we gently fade in over an idyll of near-impossible beauty. Crystal-clear waters ripple beneath us, and we are flanked with verdant willows and reddening bracken. Subsequent settings then take on this glorious autumnal palette, too, making the Americanism "the fall" central to one of this film's most beautiful interpretations of "falling".
The Falling never allows its scenes to be truly idyllic, however. The opening's gentle song soon collides with a thick, rasping breathing. And as we hear only these sounds at first, we do not know if they are the last, desperate gulps of a persecuted woman, or the deep, uncontrolled breathing of a woman caught in sexual raptures. A sort of delicious, sexualised uncertainty results, something which The Falling continues to employ throughout its bitter-sweet tale of two schoolgirls, Abbie and Lydia.
These girls rebelliously attend a prestigious, highly regulated girls' school - one of those places that conservatively drags hundreds of years' history into the present. Except the film's status quo seems to gravitate helplessly around Abbie (Florence Pugh). She's that girl with the "golden tresses" who sat so prominently in Britain's poetic past; and an enchanting smile is never far from her lips. Consequently, Lydia (Maisie Williams) becomes one of life's naturally occurring sidekicks. Having said that, Williams (recently named one of the Berlinale's Shooting Stars – watch the video interview) produces a performance so good that it makes her anything but a supporting actress.
This double act soon faces testing times, and this causes Williams' character to mimic her fair idol ever more. Except this doubling proliferates throughout the cast, until almost every pubescent girl begins to take on shades of the precocious (but tragically still naïve) Abbie. Facets of her behaviour pass between the girls like the transferring of some mysterious static, and these emulative flashes merge with superimposed images that seem almost both subliminal and avant-garde. And this effect forces us to question whether we are witnessing foolish emulation, mass hysteria, supernatural possession or a powerful collective sexual awakening.
As such, Morley's film comes to seem almost Hitchcockian. Particularly given that she relentlessly captures sexuality as something always concurrently sublime, sinister, sacred and profane. In this vein, too, The Falling reintroduces the sexually tainted "fallen woman", that figure who uncannily stalked through much of Europe's literary past. Again and again, this film stages and restages these falling, fainting women being remorselessly punished by their bodies.
Except their repeated tumbles take on a wonderful balletic quality, showing how alertly Morley has tied multiple cultural strands into her work. And she also consciously exposes the misogynistic discourses of "hysteria" that oppressed these women. Ultimately, their fallings even begin to take on the empowered potency of teenage rebellion or Christ-like overtones, so Morley's complexly feminist, interesting first major step away from documentaries is well worth a watch.
The Falling is distributed by Metrodome in the UK.