The Falling is a film that refuses to yield its secrets. I was gripped from the opening, startling, two-minute sequence: a shimmering arboreal autumnal landscape, swirling close-ups of an oak tree (a key motif), and our introduction to the central characters—Abbie, losing her virginity, and Lydia, reading a book—give way to an astonishing, rapid-fire sequence steeped in folk-horror tradition. Bloodied hands, a hand-drawn pentagram and map of sacred ley lines are among the plethora of images, some of which later appear within the main narrative, which flash and flicker on the screen so fleetingly their effect feels subliminal.
The Falling, set in a strict, English, all-girls school in 1969, explores the intense friendship between Abbie and Lydia. Abbie’s untimely, mysterious death unleashes a fainting epidemic among her school friends and sets Lydia on an increasingly frenzied journey to uncover its meaning. Writer and director Carol Morley brought in Agnès Godard (Claire Denis’s regular DP) to shoot The Falling and Tracey Thorn to soundtrack it: The Wicker Man-esque compositions are played within the film by the Alternative School Orchestra, as female artistry interweaves in and around it.
From its opening frame, The Falling invites us to read and make connections between its myriad signs and references, loaded with meaning, yet ultimately unknowable. For me, the most powerful cue comes from Wordsworth’s ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’. Lines from the poem are recited by Abbie in the film (also used in non-diegetic form throughout) and take on new resonances in the context of adolescent sexuality. The ‘Ode’ is both a celebration of and elegy for childhood, a poem of double-loss when human life is already ‘a sleep and a forgetting’. In Abbie’s hands, it speaks to the loss of her innocence, but also more powerfully to the higher spiritual plane she seems to have reached in losing it: ‘Apparelled in celestial light / The glory and the freshness of a dream’ as she dramatically recasts Wordsworth’s child.
Morley’s film is indebted to Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). In a reworking of its own, I appreciated how the film reclaims the experience and mysteries of female adolescence through the perspective of a female director.