With an odd sense of irony I found Repulsion had popped into my head. The seminal 1965 film that launched the careers of both star Catherine Deneuve and director Roman Polanski and blazed a cinematic trail that is still felt today. Films like Repulsion worked so effectively because they subverted audience expectation, using convention as a weapon wielded by the director to manipulate the audience in a welcomed and refreshing way. Polanski used the inherent isolation of the story to full advantage; as the film becomes more claustrophobic in setting it also becomes more effective and daring. Filmmakers like Lucky McGee and Darren Aronofsky have since used the film as inspiration to craft classics of their own. So it pains me when a film like James Debbeldam’s Fallen Before Falling seemingly disregards any attempt at craft though obviously drawing direct inspiration from these films.
From its telemovie style opening, to its blatantly obvious-from-the-beginning “ending”, the film plays as an ad-hoc collection of class study scenes. What narrative thread there is to tie all these scenes together is so shallow it would have been better served in a film a quarter of the running time. Though only 73 minutes in length, Fallen Before Falling pads every moment of screen time it can with nonsensical photo montages and fade outs to every single scene. The scenes themselves are rife with dissolves, to the point of lunacy, as if the editor had never used a cross fade before and fell madly in love. The overuse extends every banal shot and grinds the already languid pace to a halt making for a painfully slow movie. Music is splashed over almost every minute of the film, and drowns out the dialogue countless times. For the brief moments the music is gone, usually for the transition to another track, it’s the overbearing foley that drowns the dialogue out. When you are able to make out what the characters are saying, it’s so stilted and trite that it sucks out what little life there is in the film.
Fallen Before Falling purports to tell the story of professional actress Anastasia (Cecile Butt) seeking refuge in the country to deal with some form of psychological malady. She rents a dilapidated farm house from cowboy-with-a-heart-of-gold Matthew (Bruno Talotta) and once there proceeds to lose her mind. I used the phrase “purports” due to the film’s entirely inept handling of its own material. If you forgot to read the back of the DVD box you have no idea Butt is a professional actress, it’s not revealed until 47 minutes into the film, then only as a toss-away line. The film starts with a nonsensical scene of Butt gagged and tied to a chair that takes way too long to reveal. When Butt and her surroundings are revealed, a badly over-dubbed masked man enters, says one line, then the scene just slowly fades out. Was it a dream? A portent of future events? A moment from one of her movies? The scene serves as a warning of things to come: the laboriously padded build towards intended, but ultimately sleep-inducing, tension with zero pay-off. Not one thing in the entire running time of the film is paid off. You’re never given insight into Anastasia’s malady or its crucible, and the film doesn’t end so much as run out of steam like a deflating balloon whimpering the last of its air. When the aforementioned scene returns later in the film, once again presented in its entirety, it is neither illuminating nor insightful.
Debbeldam makes all the mistakes of a first-time director here. The script is hackney, rice-paper thin and padded to the extreme like a Jess Franco film. His attempts at style fall flat as does the evolution of his characters, their relationships and the central theme of mental deterioration. The camera work in the film is pedestrian and oddly framed; shots don’t cut together well, the image is static and lifeless, we’re shown the back of a featured character’s head through an entire scene when they’re the focus, and more than one scene is played out in a single, terribly long, shot. Technically the shots frequently break line of sight or are edited together haphazard, and the idea of actually composing the frame seems to have eluded the camera operator. The lighting is also overly flat, making the already barren sets all the more deserted and uninteresting.
Still, there was opportunity here to explore some interesting themes. In another rather abrupt moment we’re introduced to one of Anastasia’s symptoms: a high libido. These very rich psychological waters could have been plumbed to wonderful success, had it been allowed. Debbeldam even returns to it a number of times throughout the film, though each time it is handled as feebly as the first. Instead of a welcomed moment of coitus showing Anastasia in full primal bloom, we’re given kissing with a fade out and a forced internal monologue explanation as the liaise drives away. A later pivotal scene, in which this sexual psychosis plays an integral part, just abruptly appears without a much needed lead-in and deflates rather than concludes or resolves. Some kind of scene before was a constituent element, not just to allow the development of key character interaction and tragedy of the aftermath, but to offer crucial insight into Anastasia. The entire film plays out like something written after skimming through a first year psych textbook: just enough to touch upon the subject but not enough to fully develop the subtext and origin of the psychosis to its full cinematic potential.
The subject matter Debbeldam and company chose to explore requires one thing sadly lacking from the film: risk. Butt handles herself well in the role, all things considered. There are some rather good scenes here and there, but overall she doesn’t seem to pour herself into the role. Seemingly content to simply play it safe, actress and director askew the inherent demands of the role and subject matter that she be audacious and daring. Though she definitely has some chops, the character portrayal here is far too meek and superficial to be engaging; and engaging the audience is precisely what the film needs. Love interest Talotta is neither convincing nor engaging. There is never a moment where you believe him as Matthew, he’s just there moving through the scene until the inevitable fade out. As such, you never feel for Butt and Talotta’s relationship, or its growing importance. In the end it becomes little more than a footnote as the film sputters to a stop.
If Debbeldam continues making film, he should continue with caution. As a writer he seriously needs a collaborator, or at the very least a good editor with an ear for dialogue. He also needs to do a lot more research before tackling something rooted in such a cinematically rich milieu. As a director he needs to learn the art of risk, both with his cinematic vision and his work with the actors. It is far better to fail reaching for the stars than fail in quiet acquiescence. Maybe with a little time and a lot of work Debbeldam will return with a film that expounds its potential.
With a subject matter rife with potential, and a location that could have been an amazing setting for a decent into madness, Fallen Before Falling is an overly padded and flawed film filled with missed opportunities.