Film Review – The Falling
Illness is other people.
Or rather, sickness is a social contagion as well as a physiological one. Today, fainting at a dramatically opportune time is the stuff of hacky sitcom humor. In Victorian England, it was gendered hysterical through the trope of the elegant socialite overcome with feminine emotion – or perhaps subversively leveraging her social position to advantageously punctuate a moment. Whether women really fainted more often in the pages of pop literature than in actual fainting rooms, this spontaneous falling arguably says more about gender and power in society than it ever did about restrictive corsets.
The Falling sends such a surreptitious swooning epidemic to a British girls’ school in 1969, set amid its young characters’ comings-of-age. When the film works, it’s a knife’s edge of tension around questions of what’s normal and what’s diseased. When it doesn’t, it seems like a more experimental film that – like its characters – chafes at the edges of conventionality, particularly in its final act.
Following her first sexual experience, Abbie (Florence Pugh) begins to vomit and faint; she assumes this is her body’s natural response to a pregnancy. When it’s revealed to have more medically severe implications, her affectionate (perhaps romantically so) friend Lydia (Maisie Williams, Game of Thrones’ Arya Stark) also begins to faint. Other girls follow.
Abbie’s faints are spontaneous, downplayed, and ultimately physiologically vindicated. Subsequent students’ swoons seem somewhere between conscious and unconscious, psychosomatic and performative, dryly amusing and unnerving. Her successors wander the halls and classroom aisles, staring straight ahead, drawing attention with dramatic pauses before their eyes roll back and they hit the deck. One young teacher’s affectation perhaps speaks to sympathy with the girls; a classmate’s lack of affectation perhaps speaks to social distance.
As the characters’ medical states are mired in ambiguity, the film’s Gothic-esque, dream-like tone also keeps the audience on edge about the film’s genre. Does the girls’ toying with witchcraft suggest the supernatural may play into the narrative, or is it merely normal adolescent behavior? Is this a horror film, or is the horror about growing up?
Amid the chaos of collapsing kids, the strict headmistress struggles to maintain order, while the students and the faculty engage (consciously or not) in a power struggle opened in the ambiguous space between the weakness of medical severity and illness’ power to subvert the social order. The sick are comforted, and cannot do schoolwork. Is the fainting symptomatic of something medically wrong that needs to be addressed? Or are the girls protesting (consciously or not) against the school’s authority? The domestic interiors of Lydia’s home are steeped in the fashion of the 1960s, but the social upheaval of the decade seems far from the school, its absence speaking volumes to isolation’s role in maintaining strict order.
The Falling’s more interesting aspect, however, is how it parallels the questions raised by the epidemic with the characters’ adolescent turmoil. What is abnormal, what’s merely to be expected growing up, and when is the normality of the social order thoroughly diseased? What is insane, and what is counter-cultural? When is the performance of illness symptomatic of a larger rot? Or is that rot just adulthood?
In these senses, The Falling is a companion piece to several other 2015 releases. The American horror film It Follows – also set in an ambiguously-defined past – follows a group of friends attacked by a sexually-transmitted monster stalks those who recently lost their virginity. In both It Follows and The Falling, sexuality is a gateway to adulthood: inevitable, desired and potentially terrifying. Both films portray adolescence as a sexual and emotional crucible, and are united in a sense that if one survives it there is no going back. The Falling also recalls the British, Gothic / 1960s pastiche of The Duke of Burgundy, with both films also sharing a predominantly female cast and crew, and emphasizing the complexity of interpersonal relationships at work in sexual and romantic expression. All three films (it should also be noted) are brilliantly acted.
The Falling can’t help but feel less focused and consistent than either other film, however, both of which (unlike The Falling) I fully expect to wind up on many critics Best of 2015 lists a few months down the road. It Follows and Duke of Burgundy exist in odd – but consistently-stylized – worlds. The characters in the The Falling are on shifting, liminal ground, but the directorial point of view to which they’re moored shifts too much between empathy and distance. An enjoyably unconventional, recurrent musical motif roots itself in the text, coming from an “experimental music society” that the girls founded, connecting the tone of the film with the girls’ point of view. But the obscure (or maybe just English?) period-style pop music that otherwise fills the silences seems vaguely conventional and hesitantly related to the film’s content. Is it representative of the omnipresent adults’ view of teenage life, or a directorial stab at connecting to a more universal experience? Similarly, the film makes a motif of brief, barely-registerable subconscious flashes of imagery, positioned between revelation to the audience and mental schism for the characters. The thematic core of the film is how hard it is to tell what’s healthy and what’s amiss, but it’s also hard to tell what’s artistically inconsistent.
The film’s biggest problem, however, is how it yokes all the above to a secondary drama about Lydia’s emotionally-distant mother and horny brother, which form the crux of the film’s melodramatic final minutes. As the film shifts to family drama, its tension moves toward the brisk introduction of a new set of revelations and less abstract terrors – some realistic, some sensationalized – jettisoning ambiguity in favor of unambiguously condemnable actions and narrative resolution.
The Falling is unique and affecting when it revels in the liminality of illness and adolescence, but it is also the work of grown-up filmmakers prioritizing narrative closure. Perhaps the movie’s greatest irony is that – like its adult characters – it seeks to corral challenging forces and emotions to definite ends, in the process compromising them with unsatisfyingly mixed results.