Tarsem’s previous movie The Cell had a crappy story and bad acting wrapped around a handful of intensely cool but disconnected imagery. This one has a simple but decent story and good acting, with about half the movie being intensely cool imagery, finely intertwined with the rest of the plot. A quantum leap forward!

The gimmick of not having a gimmick (no digital effects, etc) was distracting as hell. We were always “what country do you think that is” or “THAT isn’t a real place is it” or “aha, that’s GOT to be a digital effect” or “is the little girl acting or not, she seems so natural.” From online trivia we learn it’s a remake of a 1981 Bulgarian film and the little girl was often improvising.

Movie itself is a wonder. In Princess Bride’s framing story, grandpa Peter Falk is reading a great, classic storybook, so the bulk movie has to be great and classic, and it lives up – but in The Fall we have an unreliable narrator, suicidal, heartbroken, wasted on morphine, making it up as he goes along. In a sense this makes the story more unpredictable, but it’s also a huge cop-out because if the writing is poor you can say “oh it’s supposed to be poor, didn’t you get that?” And it is kinda poor. Our hero the masked bandit with his lost love and archnemesis kinda fizzles, and his side characters Luigi (“explosives expert” who only uses explosives once, suicidally at the very end), The Ex-Slave and The Indian just make poses and look beautiful against the exotic scenery, getting shown up by the problem-solving Charles Darwin and his pet monkey. So it doesn’t sound too good and it’s probably not, but if you’re gonna throw out images this nice, I’ll let your thin plot slide. Carried over from The Cell we’ve still got some nightmarish imagery too. When their guide The Mystic is captured, being chopped to death with an axe (barely offscreen), crying and repeating the safe word “googly googly”, small birds flying out of his mouth, that’s a thing that gets stuck terribly in my head while I’m trying to sleep.

Movie ends with a montage of Keaton and Chaplin stunt scenes, half of which I recognized, in a belated homage to stunt men (our hero is one, ended up in the hospital with the little girl by falling badly off a bridge). Weird. Nobody I’ve heard of in the cast, which makes sense. If you’re shooting a self-financed movie over four years in 20+ countries, you’re not gonna get many recognizable actors to sign up. However, Lee Pace (our storytelling hero) is now starring in Pushing Daisies.

This year, directors Dave & Xave helmed the Jessica Alba remake of The Eye, so it’s only fitting that a few months later their own movie got a Hollywood remake starring Liv Tyler. The Strangers also reportedly contains traces of Funny Games, a movie that remade itself, so it’s best to stay away from that whole mess.

Bound by love… separated by chainlink fence

Producer Richard Grandpierre (Brotherhood of the Wolf) thinks he’s quite important, pastes his name all over the credits. Movie spends a lot of time setting up that its loving French couple (who have just moved to rural Romania) love each other. They are a teacher (Olivia Bonamy of La Captive) and a writer (Michael Cohen of Lelouch’s Les Mis) and they love each other. They feed the dog. They watch TV. Then, a half-hour in, their car disappears and people come in the middle of the night terrorizing them in their house. A couple of these “strangers” get hurt, possibly killed, but finally our loving couple is lost in the woods, led into the sewers, and wiped out by… children! Twist, they are children!

OMG they are children!

Everything is handheld shaky-cam, of course, to give us the proper sense of intimate urgency a la Blair Witch. The dude is pretty ineffectual, hurting himself early on, but the girl is our pseudo-survivor character, all tough and good-looking under pressure. Character/story-wise I preferred American horror The Descent, which this occasionally reminded me of, but Them def. had me jumping in the dark. Manages to sustain its suspense much better than most movies of this type, so even though nothing of interest is ever happening, it’s tense as all hell (and with good sound/effects). Guess that’s all you can ask.

Soon as she started crawling through a dark tunnel with a bright light at the end and I saw the distance was out-of-focus, I knew this would happen.

“Dario? Mr. Argento? Is anyone there?”

Holy intense movie, gave me a major headache. Or maybe that was dehydration. Very good cast (IMDB links them all to the other 3-4 Romanian movies I’ve heard of). Some nice looong takes. Awesome dinner table scene plays out in a single take with just a ton of dialogue, mounting tension from both onscreen and off. An impressive movie for sure, glad I saw it.

NPR gives some background:

In 1966, Romanian dictator Nicolai Ceausescu sought to boost his nation’s population by criminalizing abortion, declaring, “The fetus is the property of the entire society… anyone who avoids having children is a deserter who abandons the laws of national continuity.” 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, a new film by director Cristian Mungiu, explores the ramifications of Ceausescu’s ban two decades later. … Mungiu won’t go into personal details but says his film is based on the experience of someone he knows. He says half a million women died getting illegal abortions during the reign of [Ceausescu].

Practically a horror movie, in fact it builds tension and suspense better than almost any horror movie I’ve seen. Almost lands in the Lars Von Trier / Gaspar Noe camp of terrifying movies that you feel worse for having watched and never want to watch again… but not quite. Stays on the Michael Haneke side of the fence with the movies that make you feel upset but interested. I mean, it has a happy ending, I’m not saying it’s Last House on the Left. The horror isn’t from having evil characters (the abortionist is the worst of the bunch), and their behavior (unlike most by Haneke, Noe, Trier) isn’t just movie-believable, it’s completely convincing. These are real people in a tense situation in a totalitarian state, in the same situation that many Americans would be in if abortion was illegalized.

A rarity in this movie: a weapon (the switchblade) picked up but never used.

Reverse Shot makes the point that this is not simply “the Romanian abortion movie,” in part because “Otilia [the blonde woman] — and not Gabita — occupies the film’s narrative and moral center.” Instead they call it “a tense, riveting thriller (of a sort) that subtly evokes the experiences of women in a society that fiercely regulates their lives and bodies, often reducing them to commodities to be bought, sold, and bartered, no different at the extreme from the Kent cigarettes and orange Tic Tacs traded on the Bucharest black market.”

From an interview with the director:

Whenever you have to live in a period that is complicated, you have to learn your way. Nothing is very clear or simple or on the surface. You have to understand how things [work]. This kind of generates the feeling of negotiation. It’s difficult to say, by the end of the film, which of these two girls is better served by this society: the girl who apparently makes the decisions and negotiates with everybody, or the girl who doesn’t seem to do much, but will have her problem solved by the end of the day. It was a way of talking about compromise. When you live in a closed society and don’t expect this society will come to an end — people never thought the communist system would end — you tend to compromise more. They don’t anticipate any kind of judgment. They naturally think, “This system is abusing all the time, so I can be abusing with some other people because of this.”

The beginning of the film [is about] the ability to find your way over there by compromising and negotiating your way out of things. There’s another scene which is related to this — the dinner scene where you see a different generation of people who are not guilty of anything else but adapting to the system. They had to survive, they had to raise children. They are people who adapt to that society. For me it’s the meaning of all these objects. It’s about what it meant [to have] that symbol of a free world: bar soap, a pack of cigarettes. They represented much more than you can see.