The thing about The Fall is, it's hopeless.
Undoubtedly, it's a coming of age fantasy, a treatise on doubling and identity, a visually arresting film (one of the best of the decade). Undoubtedly, it's a film about the power of story.
But unlike most of its kind, this movie puts no faith in its narrative as a force of change; instead, The Fall is, at its heart, a film about how reality conquers, and though storytelling is necessary and worthwhile, story sometimes cannot hold against the real.
In a Los Angeles hospital in the 1920s, young Alexandria (being treated for a broken arm) goes wandering and finds Roy, a stuntman paralyzed during a film shoot (his first). Alexandria's taken by his charm and his way with a story, and after he reels her in with the beginning of a tale of Alexander the Great, he abandons it for one she requests and is likely to keep her coming back, which he needs; he's trying to commit suicide, and needs her to retrieve the necessary morphine pills. However, as the story progresses, and Alexandria inserts more of her ideas (and, eventually, herself) into the tale, it becomes a proving ground, with Roy trying to insist that there's no hope, and Alexandria determined to get a happy ending.
Story in The Fall is both a plot and a character, a backdrop and a tool to help negotiate the world. But at every turn, the movie makes a point of establishing both a story's power, and its limits.
This intent is evident even in the first story, as Roy's tale of Alexander is aborted and abandoned in favor of something more likely to hold Alexandria's interest; that story is useless except as an opening volley, and poor Alexander is left forever at the point of no rescue. (His story returns for an instant, when a wounded Alexandria is dreaming of painful betrayals.)
The tale of the quest against Governor Odious is designed to placate Alexandria and keep her in the suspense Roy needs to leverage favors from her, but even as he lays out the confederacy allying against Odious, Alexandria's imagination filters and influences the outset: her mind's eye turns a Native American "Indian" into an Indian shah, and she names Charles Darwin's ultimate prize as a butterfly specimen. (That Darwin the naturalist is so specifically present in a tale otherwise peopled with archetypes like the Ex-Slave and the Explosives Expert is something the movie makes no comment on, but it is, in some form, another intrusion of the real.)
The first failure of story against the real comes when Alexandria asks that the Masked Bandit, previously played by her father, be played by Roy instead, because her father is dead. Part of her reasoning must be her growing feelings for Roy and her desire to see him as a hero in two planes, but there's a deeper truth to the request of which she's already aware—that telling a story about someone can't bring them back from the dead.
The story suffers other violent intrusions by reality. When Roy is frustrated with Alexandria's failure to get him what he wants, he strands his heroes in the desert and leaves them to die, and they're saved only by Alexandria herself, who appears in the story with a tiny pistol in hand and announces herself as the Bandit's daughter. When Alexandria feels secure in Roy's friendship, she inserts her favorite nurse, Evelyn, as the Princess (and insists repeatedly on a kiss between the Princess and Roy's Bandit), but after she discovers that Evelyn is having an affair with a hospital doctor, the Princess is swiftly revealed as a traitor who abandons them—something contrary to all Alexandria's wishes, but a reality she doesn't deny.
However, storytelling in The Fall is also painted as a vital and a necessary thing. During the course of this questing tale, Alexandria makes three attempts to retrieve the morphine pills Roy requires; the first attempt fails because of a misunderstanding, the second as a result of duplicitous staff, and the third a personal tragedy, as Alexandria suffers a fall that nearly kills her. Here is a story within a story, too: she sees a half-dozen deaths acted out in stylized tableaux, from Alexander to her father, as her doll-self's brain is opened and examined by wordless puppets. Alexandria's subconscious crafts this as a story about things that can't be faced head-on, and while it doesn't help her injuries heal any faster, the tale she tells herself is still a necessary part of her healing process, as a way to take control of what she can at a moment she's otherwise helpless.
When she wakes from surgery, a despondent Roy admits his ulterior motives and tries to finish the story by brutally killing off members of the confederacy in short order. ("There's no happy ending with me," he tells her, a double meaning that goes unnoticed.) A tearful Alexandria forces him to stop before the Bandit father and daughter can fall, claiming they deserve to live. "It's my story," he tells her (real life cutting in), but she insists, "Mine, too." Roy relents, and the Masked Bandit recovers from the point of death to vanquish Odious and start a new life with his daughter.
For a moment, it seems as though the force of Alexandria's will has wrought the changes she so deeply wishes for, as she's able to take control of the story being presented to her (and, the movie suggests, avert Roy's suicidal tendencies). But again, reality intrudes; as the hospital gathers for a movie screening, Roy realizes his disastrous stunt has been cut from the final film. Alexandria doesn't notice, but behind her, Roy is devastated. Watching them side by side, we see that Alexandria's story got the ending she wanted, but we also know it's a happy ending that won't play out in the real world.
(The movie actively blurs the lines between reality and story from a technical perspective, as well. The hospital scenes between Lee Pace and child actress Catinca Untaru were shot chronologically, with pains taken to maintain the illusion of his injuries throughout the several-week shoot, and the two stars did not even meet or even catch sight of each other for the first time until the cameras were rolling, a circumstance which lends an edge of desperation to the courtship feeling of their early scenes. In fact, the majority of Pace's and Untaru's dialogue throughout the film was improvised, with sometimes surprising results. One of these unscripted moments was Untaru's misreading Pace's handwritten "E" as a 3 on a note, a mistake which Singh wrote into the film as a plot twist; an instance of life influencing story that seems fitting for a film exploring those lines.)
This treatment of story would be unspeakably grim if it weren't for the subtext that death—though inevitable—has a kernel of hope within it. When Darwin's simian companion is shot by the Governor's guards, he opens his hand in his last moments to reveal a live butterfly as a gift for Darwin; when the Mystic is murdered, birds fly forth from his mouth; in the movie's last moments, Alexandria buries the false teeth of a kindly patient inside two empty orange halves, and speaks of the tree that will grow from them.
The story Roy tells Alexandria is malleable, and changes as his and Alexandria's relationship develops. But The Fall is not a story that trades in surprise, nor is it one that keeps the real world out. When Alexandria leaves Roy behind in the hospital at movie's end, we know what will happen; when she speaks of seeing Roy, recovered and performing dangerous stunts in silent films, we know she's telling us a story, trying to get what she wants—a happy ending.
But even this is a story about hope in the face of death, just as even Roy's fleeting story of Alexander ends with the conqueror deciding, despite all odds, they might find a way to survive. In fact, The Fall's belief in the hope behind the darkness can be seen even in the first moments of the story, when Roy tells Alexandria to close her eyes, a way to cross over from reality to fantasy that has inevitable suggestions of the mortal.
All right, close your eyes. What do you see?
But she pushes harder, and sees stars, and beneath them a story begins.