After attention-grabbing work in the fields of pop video and vodka commercials, the single-named director Tarsem made his feature debut with The Cell, a style-heavy slasher movie which didn’t make a whole lot of sense but sure looked pretty. His sophomore effort, which weirdly but pointlessly echoes the first film’s title, is astonishingly beautiful, intermittently well-written and –acted and has a lot of good underlying ideas (it’s a remake of a little-known Bulgarian film Yo Ho Ho) – but watching it is like trying to eat an entire fruitcake at a sitting, in that its imagery is so dense, unremittingly striking and elaborate that it lies heavy on the stomach while a great deal of the icing (the specific period setting) seems superflous and distracting.
A sepia-tinted opening shows surreal elements – feathers and an artificial leg floating in a river, a dead horse being hauled out of the water, cowboy-dressed characters standing around, an old-time train puffing on a high bridge – which eventually make sense as we realise we’re at the aftermath of a disastrously botched stunt during the shooting of a silent Hollywood movie (though we never get to see the full fall). Then, the bulk of the film takes place in a palm-fringed Los Angeles sanatorium where Roy Walker (Lee Pace), the now-crippled stuntman, is failing to make a recovery and aggrieved because his movie star girlfriend has moved on to the leading man (Daniel Caltagirone). Roy is befriended by Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), a little Romanian girl with her arm in plaster after a tragic incident – which seems to involve a Klan-type bigoted organisation burning her father to death, but also a fall from a tree while orange-picking underage to help support her remaining father.
Roy wants Alexandria to get him enough morphine so he can commit suicide, and spins out a fairytale which we see in vivid images as part of a strategy to hook her in, promising an ending only if she does him the favour. The effect is rather like watching The Princess Bride remade by a sadist: though the acting is miraculous (Untaru gives one of the best child performances I’ve seen), the film isn’t quite willing to confront the cold nastiness of the selfish tale-teller’s stratagem – which becomes almost impossible to take in the home stretch as Roy cruelly invents an unhappy ending in which all the sympathetic adventurers are slaughtered (‘it’s not true, you’re making it up,’ the girl cries) to the evident distress of his audience. The tale-within-a-film uses multiple stunning locations on every available continent, stylised Eiko Ishioka costumes, strikingly-staged action, unforgettable images (a swimming elephant seen from underwater), borrowed but still-impressive techniques (an animation sequence is pure Quay Brothers pastiche), mass choreography of the villain’s minions and unfailingly sumptuous cinematography.
In the tale, the heroic masked bandit (Pace) joins with a band of adventurers (all Wizard of Oz-style analogues of folks around the hospital) — an Indian mystic (Julian Bleach), a former slave turned warrior (Marcus Wesley), a fierce Indian (Jeetu Verma), a bomb-throwing anarchist (Robin Smith), naturalist Charles Darwin (Leo Bill) and his clever monkey (a much better double-act than the kid and the chimp in Speed Racer) — to seek revenge on the evil Governor Odious (Caltagirone), and falls for the villain’s fiancée (Justine Waddell) in a set-up for another cruel reversal. It’s a fascinating, intensely-wrought film, and tries extremely hard to make human connections but ultimately it gets buried under its gorgeous visuals and tends to obscure a few plot points that are irritating rather than ambiguous. Tarsem is obviously stung by accusations of style over substance, and here delivers as much substance as anyone could wish – then still slathers it over with so much style that the film is liable to wound up classed as a magnificent folly (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen comes to mind, several times) rather than a timeless classic.
I came out of it buzzing, but also with a sneaking wish to see the Bulgarian film in the hope that it cuts more directly to the heart of the matter.