In August 2011, fourteen students from Le Roy High School in upstate New York inexplicable began exhibiting perplexing medical symptoms including, but not limit to, verbal outbursts and seizures. Doctors were baffled, describing the incident as an outbreak of mass hysteria or a ‘phenomenon of collective suggestion’. This incident, and others like it form the basis of Carol Morley’s The Falling (2014) a mysterious drama set in an all-girl school in the 1960s where a single case of spontaneous fainting quickly becomes an epidemic. The mysteries at the heart of Morley‘s lurid exploration of female adolescence aren’t medical, however.
Rather they’re deeply rooted in contemporary concerns about gender inequality; portraying puberty not as a period of awakening but one of subjugation. The Falling‘s themes of burgeoning sexuality and a woman’s right to her own body are veiled in a profuse shroud of paranormal evocations that recall Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and Lucile Hadžihalilović Innocence. Thankfully Morley‘s latest isn’t pure imitation, and talk of ley-lines and pagan folklore are soon dismissed with an indomitably stiff upper lip by the school elders, grounding the film in reality thanks to a quintessentially British sensibility. The film’s central focus is on the bond shared by precocious student Lydia (Maisie Williams) and Abbie (Florence Pugh).
However, when an unexpected tragedy befalls Abbie, Lydia begins experiencing unexplainable incidents of fainting. Despite there being no clear medical grounds for her ailment, Lydia is determined that her black-outs are rooted in something far more substantial than hysteria and as her condition worsens the collective alchemy of her words begins to infect her fellow classmates. Morley occupies a narrative vortex between the spiritual ambiguity of Lydia’s affliction and the subconscious fraudulence of her actions. By adopting her perspective and her instinctive feel for the emotional arithmetic of her classmates, the film proffers a refreshing, if uneven, vantage on the social pressure on girls growing up in a society where image is everything. Morely’s amorphous approach, devoid on the most part of paternal and male interference, allows for a range of interpretations, principally that the mass fainting is the involuntary reaction to the second-wave of feminism that occurred in the 1960s.
These girls struggling to make a claim to their bodies as they flail and rebel against the antiquated hegemony of the school’s authorities. The Falling‘s refreshingly all-female perspective expects the viewer to become wholly caught up in its broad surge of feeling, yet there‘s something unsatisfactory and disaffecting about the film’s asinine finale. Despite Tracey Thorns haunting score and Agnes Godard’s spellbinding photography, the film feels aesthetically and narratively discordant, crammed with too much style and too many ideas to ever coalesce into something truly memorable. Lydia occupies a space between reality and fantasy, and so to does Morley. Fresh from 2011’s fascinating Dreams of a Life, where facts proved to be as alluring as fiction, her latest feels like the work of a director still caught between two worlds.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble