This is director Carol Morley’s dull, ponderous, pretentious take on budding female sexuality. Or something.
The story is set in the late Sixties when the damp claustrophobia of convention is, like the young girls at a rigid convent-like school, about to change. Lydia (“Game of Throne’s” Maisie Williams) is at the heart of change. She is caught between the sweet innocence of childhood, lovingly intimate with her best friend, Abbie (Florence Pugh in her first movie…we’ll be seeing much more of her in the future) and her slow sexual awakening. This moment between innocence and experience, between the confines of school and the liberation of Wordsworth’s dales and hills (the poet is pretentiously quoted throughout the movie), between girlfriends and male lovers, between virginity and, as the movie points out, the petit mort, the little death of orgasm, is dramatized by a series of sudden fainting fits. Their own virginal petit morts.
In her class, the students at the school succumb to an epidemic of fainting fits. Perhaps, as the uncomprehending, rigid teachers at the school think, it’s all fake; perhaps it’s just group hysteria caused by the rebellious Lydia. At best it may be the delayed reaction of the sudden (and never explained) death of one of the girls (no longer just a petit mort for her). Or maybe, as the director signals with lights ablaze, it’s just the girls’ unconscious means of escaping social repression and entering into womanhood.
There are flashes of something genuine in the movie; we certainly get a sense of the hot-house claustrophobia of Lydia’s school and home life. And the quasi-adult society of the girls is nicely observed. But director Carol Morley is of the Terrence Malick school of storytelling where ponderous SYMBOLS punctuate every thought: the world of the classroom is contrasted with the world of nature. The central image of the movie is that of a large oak tree under whose spreading branches the girls frequently worship, as if freeing themselves from convention in a kind of adolescent paganism. The tree, the male icon, is perhaps the embodiment of budding sexual desire or freedom from repression. It is here, in its embrace, that the newly deflowered Lydia runs toward and climbs into. But the embrace of the tree is also another kind of trap; a trap from which Lydia must emerge. She does so by falling, trance-like into the rushing river below. It is from this river that she must be saved/baptized/reborn…from the small deaths of orgasm to the large life of adulthood. Out of the tree fell the child. From the dark waters rose the woman.
And for this nonsense I’ve delayed going to “Avengers”. Sigh.
The Falling. Directed and written by Carol Morley
With Maisie Williams, Florence Pugh, Greta Scacchi, Maxine Peake