Whereas in 2003’s Free Radicals writer-director Barbara Albert wants to take an X-ray of an entire town’s soul, her follow-up Falling focuses on a day and a half in the lives of five women, and is correspondingly warmer and more intimately scaled. Free Radicals is the wide view, Falling the detailed miniature. Not that the latter film lacks for ambition, however — Albert will cram past, present and future into the 36 hours the narrative covers.
The five women here are former schoolmates, now in their early 30s, who have reunited for the funeral of their former teacher Michael. The setting is semi-rural Austria, far removed from Viennese sophistication. The funeral is a bittersweet occasion for these five women: there is the sadness of Michael’s death, but also the pleasant novelty of finding themselves together again. They decide to take advantage of their shared downtime and head for a wine tasting out in the country together.
The film will become the proverbial long day’s journey into night, and into day again, fueled by liberal amounts of alcohol. The booze will make it easier for a lot of half-hidden resentments and secrets to come out, in addition to inspiring all kinds of entertaining misbehavior. In the midst of all the drunken antics, however, the movie never lapses into sudsy melodrama. Falling doesn’t give off the faint chill of Free Radicals, but Albert’s style is still cool and meditative, determined to make the audience think as well as feel.
As the movie tracks the rising and falling moods of a long night of drinking, high points include the Mitteleuropa version of a drunken hootenanny, indulgently if not lovingly staged by the director, complete with line-dancing and a Europop take on country music. (Country purists may want to cover their ears.) Much of the action takes place at ‘The Brooklyn,’ a sprawling dance club in the middle of nowhere, where the carousing continues into the wee hours. Here Fallen suddenly seems to blur into Free Radicals: Once again we’re watching actress Ursula Strauss (a fearless trouper in the service of her director’s vision) getting plastered in nightclub hell.
If the two movies seem to merge together through their respective club sequences, the viewer can’t help noting how these clubs out in the boonies are a focal point of the director’s concerns. For all their cheesy vibe, the clubs are where the characters have license to get out of their heads. The liquor, the music and the sexual charge on the dance floor offer the possibility of a moment of transcendence, and the fact that the music might be god-awful or the atmosphere tacky doesn’t make the possibility of ecstasy any less real for these people. Hanging over the scenes on the dance floor, as well as the films as a whole, is the question of whether the characters can find any other means of transcendence outside of these painfully limited circumstances.
Throughout the scenes at the Brooklyn, dance-pop blares from the speakers, inescapable and indefatigable at 120-plus beats per minute. There’s something blackly funny about how this dreck is the constant backdrop to the characters’ epiphanies and sorrows, but Albert is also showing admirable rigor in her choice of music. Most filmmakers would succumb to the temptation to swap in songs that underlined the drama or emotion of the scenes, or use tracks that flaunt the ‘right’ hip taste. Albert brings a more anthropological mindset to bear: this is the music that would be playing in this club, so that’s what we have to endure on the soundtrack.
During the night the five leads of Falling will break off into twos and threes, each new grouping shedding a new light on their shared past and present frustrations. It emerges that the film’s true subject is the characters’ disappointment with their adult lives, how those lives fall far short of their youthful dreams. It’s appropriate that they’re all dressed in black, because what’s really being mourned here is not the late Michael, but the illusions these women once held.
In a little more than an hour, Albert gives us a sharply focused portrait of these women and their fraying ties. Even if we only get a vague sense of the characters’ youthful idealism, the movie is acutely perceptive about how a sense of shrinking parameters can afflict people in their early 30s. But Falling goes on too long, losing focus as we briefly follow each woman as she goes back to her everyday life. Perhaps Albert intends the audience to experience the same comedown as the characters, but the film suddenly starts to feel too diffuse; I wanted to yell “Stop! Fade to black!” each time the action cut to a new scene.
But even if the movie’s narrative rigor gives way to an amorphous sprawl in the last few minutes, it’s refreshing to see a filmmaker determined to sidestep formula. Albert’s experiments with form here also include the use of freeze frames, isolating moments in time, but the device runs up against the cathartic pleasures of more traditional storytelling. The performances are so strong, and the depiction of this world is so convincing, that the movie doesn’t need so many disruptions, which threaten to become a pile-up of alienation effects.
These minor flaws of Falling stem from the prodigiously inventive Albert having more ideas than one feature can readily accommodate. Per IMDB, Albert has kept busy working as a producer and screenwriter the past few years, but hasn’t directed a feature since Falling in 2006. I hope that will change soon — Free Radicals and Falling lead me to think there’s a great movie in her future.