As a wave of falling sickness takes over an all-girls school, Carol Morley’s The Falling attempts to pluck female empowerment from a maelstrom of teenage desire.
Smells Like Teen Spiritby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Following on from her award winning documentary Dreams Of A Life, Carol Morley has fallen into the world of fiction with The Falling – a parable on peer pressure and female empowerment. Like Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, there’s something intensely intoxicating about this sealed female universe of adolescent secrets and feminine posturing, but like her previous film, there’s also something uniquely British about it too. Gone however is the North London tower block and in its place an all-girls school of provocatively under-uniformed pupils and its melancholy undercurrent of past traumas. So it’s a shame that Morley is unable to herd her unruly subject matter into a coherent whole – mixing maternal distance, lesbian attraction, school dynamics and a metaphysical yearning into what seems like an underbaked, teenage mess. Like Laurent Cantet’s misfiring Foxfire, it’s an ugly duckling of female adolescence – a powder keg of idolisation, power and petty jealousies; a hermetic and hormonal universe in free fall.
Lydia (Maisie Williams) and Abbie (Florence Pugh) are best friends at high school. They attend class together and go to the Alternative School Orchestra together. In fact, when Lydia’s not with her agoraphobic beautician mother Eileen (Maxine Peake) or her older brother Kenneth (Joe Cole), she pretty much does everything with Lydia. She’s taller, more beautiful, more sexually mature; and it’s a feat of nature that leads Abbie to lose her virginity first, before giving Lydia the lowdown on the ins and outs of the “little death” of sex. Falling pregnant to one of her uncounted beaux, Abbie faints in class – much to the chagrin of form tutor Miss Mantel (Greta Scacchi) and headmistress Miss Alvaro (Monica Dolan). But it’s nothing compared to the collective hysteria and fainting fits that take over the school when Abbie suddenly disappears – as teenage confusion, grief and classroom idolisation battle it out on the playground.
Men aren’t much to be found in Carol Morley’s The Falling – what with an absent father and a school comprised of all-female pupils and teachers. There’s Science teacher Mr Hopkins or Lydia’s brother Kenneth, whose fraternal affection gives way to incestuous desire as Lydia tries to recreate her best friend’s moments of ecstasy – but really The Falling is a film about female experience. And it’s a spectrum, all the way from Lydia’s battered and bruised mum Eileen – too afraid to leave the house (and delivered with Maxine Peake’s usual economic aplomb) – to a robust, arch headmistress, bringing her pupils back into consciousness with a sharp prick from her brooch. But for the most part, it’s a heady mix of listless rivalry, adolescent awakening and desperate desire as the girls lusciously and lasciviously faint, fall and fit their way into the annals of school history.
It’s a political move no doubt – an act of rebellion against a very Sixties oppressive authority that sees the fairer sex go from obedient child to empowered woman. And it’s in no small part due to Maxine Peake’s character, who leaves the confines of the home to defend her daughter from the self-destructive power of symbolic oaks and the delusions of teenage confusion, but it’s also present in Lydia’s single-minded revolution, as she attempts to honour her friend with a fitful wave of sympathy, battling it out with her classmates for the position of most faithful disciple. But it’s a movement that stems from a transgressive desire, like Claire’s for her best friend Laura in François Ozon’s The New Girlfriend or Thérèse for her best friend Anne in Claude Miller’s Thérèse Desqueyroux that puts politics in second place and way behind desire.
Perhaps it’s just the expression “falling in love”, but there’s a long cinematic history of the sexual nature of falling – from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo to the Jamie Dornan/Gillian Anderson TV thriller The Fall and Stephan Lacant’s Freier Fall. And it’s a neat device, using fainting fits as an expression of female sexuality; a passivity that in Carol Morley’s The Falling finds a very modern aggression. But the sexual landscape is complicated beyond female togetherness and adolescent ecstasy, as each “little death” becomes a swipe against the establishment, a testament of love to a fallen classmate or an exclamation of disobedience. And it’s catching, with the teachers even taking a topple or two. But while Morley’s film pays homage to other films of student rebellion, like Leontine Sagan’s Mädchen in Uniform or Lindsay Anderson’s If…, The Falling is a fruitless putsch. Clichéd and confused, it may at times stretch towards a glorious revolution, but with nowhere to go beyond its hormonal dystopia of pale desire, it falls disappointingly to pieces.
The Falling is released on 24th April 2015 in the UK