The Falling

Released in 2015, Carol Morley’s film The Falling is set in England in the late 1960s. The action takes place in and around a private girls’ school; its imposing neo-Gothic buildings are set in leafy grounds around a large lake. Sixteen-year-olds Lydia and Abbie are intense best friends. Abbie has begun experimenting with sex, and their friendship seems to be threatened when she discovers she is pregnant. The girls discuss abortion, and Abbie then has sex with Lydia’s older brother Kenneth, possibly in the hope of getting rid of the baby. She then begins to suffer from fainting spells. After both girls are kept behind in detention one day, Abbie passes out; we later learn that she has died. Lydia begins suffering from similar fainting spells, and it soon becomes an epidemic, with numerous girls and a young art teacher in the school passing out, apparently spontaneously. The headteacher and deputy head (Miss Alvaro and Miss Mantel) attempt to ignore what is happening. However, more and more girls start having fits, involving fainting spells, twitches and winks, symptoms much like those exhibited by Abbie before she died. The chaos reaches a climax during a school assembly. Numerous girls are carried away to hospital, fainting and hyperventilating. The school is shut down, and the girls are quizzed by a psychiatrist.

After some time, the symptoms slowly fade away, although a hardcore group, led by Lydia, is the last to return to school. Lydia becomes more and more resistant towards the teachers, and is eventually expelled; and she is also increasingly consumed with anger towards her mother Eileen, who is agoraphobic. Still seemingly haunted by thoughts of Abbie, Lydia starts to have sex with her brother; when her mother discovers them, she runs Kenneth out of the house. Eileen goes on to reveal that Lydia and Kenneth are half-siblings, and it is implied that Lydia is the result of rape. Lydia rushes out of the house, pursued by Eileen. She jumps or falls from a large tree into the lake outside the school, but her mother appears to save her from drowning.

The Falling is loosely based on real events. Morley has described in several interviews and newspaper articles how she became interested in ‘mass hysteria’ (or ‘mass psychogenic illness’). This became the topic of her short film The Madness of the Dance (2006) – a rather strange musical treatment of the topic, in which a ‘professor’ narrates a history of such phenomena, and specific cases are acted out, culminating in a bizarre song-and-dance finale. As the film explains, most reported cases involve females; most appear to be triggered by some kind of stress response; although sometimes there are also questions about environmental contamination.

In the course of her research, Morley apparently visited Professor Simon Wessely of the Royal Bethlem and Maudsley Hospitals in London; and the plot of The Falling has several parallels with a real-life case reported in one of the articles he showed her. ‘Hysterical epidemic in a classroom’, published in Psychological Medicine in 1973, describes a case in which an outbreak of fainting attacks followed the pregnancy and death of a girl at a school in South London. The article suggests that a strong sexual dimension was in play here; and that the girls had been engaging in ‘a great deal of talk of sex, free love, philosophy, and death’. As in The Falling, ethnic minority girls appeared to be exempt from the illness; and the ‘leader’ of the group played a crucial role. Interestingly, the girl who died in this case is named Anne, and the ‘leader’ is called Louise (as compared with Abbie and Lydia); and Louise also apparently had a difficult relationship with her single mother.

Like the other films I’m discussing, The Falling is preoccupied with the relationship between reality and fiction (or fantasy). It’s never entirely clear whether the girls are pretending, or somehow inducing the fainting spells, or just fainting uncontrollably. There may be a kind of ‘empathic contagion’ here. Lydia is to some extent copying Abbie’s behaviour; and the other girls appear to emulate Lydia. Miss Alvaro clearly believes that Lydia is faking: at one point, when she passes out in her office, Miss Alvaro pricks her with a pin to wake her up. The fainting fits also seem to represent a kind of challenge to adult authority: they occur at several points (both in school and in Lydia’s case, at home) where the girls’ credibility is questioned by adults. After large numbers of girls are taken to hospital, several recover fairly quickly; but the others begin to compete with each other as to whether they are in the more or less ‘advanced stages’ of the condition, and they later accuse each other of being ‘fake’.

Like the other films, The Falling also sets up a search for an explanation that it ultimately refuses to provide. Several red herrings are introduced, perhaps with a touch of irony. Lydia’s brother Kenneth, for example, talks about ley lines and other occult possibilities, as well as referring to Jung; the girls frequently retreat to the school bathrooms, where they pick away at (and eventually tear apart) a wall panel that seems to be made of toxic asbestos; and there is even a mention of radioactivity in a report on Eileen’s TV. Especially at the moments where the girls are about to faint, the film includes extremely rapid montages, combining images of past and present, flashing between the natural surroundings and images of sex and violence that are too rapid to process or interpret.

As in Heavenly Creatures, the girls speculate about whether they are simply ‘mad’; but the attempts of adult experts to explain events are ridiculed and resisted. The climactic outbreak of fainting takes place in a school assembly where a guest from the Women’s Circle has been brought in to give a talk on ‘accidents in the home’. In hospital, the girls are interrogated by a (notably unseen) psychiatrist. Many of them refuse to respond, while others are vague or cannot articulate their feelings. Lydia, however, is much more forthright: ‘nobody wants to know the truth,’ she claims, ‘why is everyone ignoring us?’ The psychologist grants that the condition may be real for the girls (albeit not for him), but his diagnosis of ‘hysterical contagion’ – announced by Miss Alvaro – fails to resolve matters.

On one level, the film is about Lydia’s search for identity: as she says at one point, ‘nobody knows who I am… what I’m really like… what I think about doing.’ Yet some critics seem to have found the ending especially unsatisfying in this respect. Having been discovered having sex with Kenneth, Lydia asks her mother, ‘what’s wrong with me, who am I?’ The revelation that she is (probably) the result of rape – and that this also explains her mother’s many years of agoraphobia – is perhaps a rather too convenient answer. Even so, Lydia now seems to believe that she knows ‘the truth’ about her identity, and that she has an explanation of what she has been going through. She runs out of the house: there is a full moon, and she climbs the large symbolic tree that overshadows the lake. She proclaims that she is at last ‘free’, ‘real’ and fully ‘conscious’ – although it is not clear whether she then jumps into the lake, or simply slips and falls by accident. Eileen, seemingly haunted by images of the violence she herself has suffered, emerges from the house and rescues her daughter from drowning.

On the face of it, this ending is highly melodramatic; although once again, it’s not clear how far it is intended to be believable. In the final act of the film, Lydia is systematically isolated – and isolates herself – from the other girls; her growing aggression towards her mother, and the shocking scene of her having sex with Kenneth (whom she believes is her brother) show her crossing all sorts of lines. Her final attempt to confront the authority of the school fails: she urges the other girls to ‘kill the system’, but they do not join her, and she is drowned out by a collective rendition of the hymn ‘To Be A Pilgrim’ (there are distinct echoes of Lindsay Anderson’s If…. here). Our ‘identification’ with Lydia – already in question because of the continuing doubt about the reality of the fainting fits – is weakening by this point. Even if she believes she has arrived at some kind of truthful explanation, it’s not necessarily clear that the film supports this, or that the viewer has to believe it. The mystery remains unresolved.

In this respect, the film has some striking parallels with Picnic at Hanging Rock. It cultivates a similar air of mystery and foreboding through its almost surreal setting: the neo-Gothic school buildings, the lake and the large tree, and the autumnal dying nature. The sound design is particularly notable in this respect – the hooting of owls, the rasp of the headteacher’s cigarette, and the sounds of breathing are all accentuated. However, there are several more direct echoes of Weir’s film. Both begin with a similar quotation – in this instance, from Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality’, with its longing for ‘the glory and the freshness of a dream’ that has been lost (‘the things which I have seen I now can see no more’). At one point, in the girls’ art lesson, it’s discovered that everybody’s watches have stopped; and the scene in which the class goes out to sketch the lake is a pre-Raphaelite tableau similar to that of the picnic on the Rock. The figure of Abigail bears a striking physical similarity to Miranda (although her name also echoes the leading character of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible – which the film also resembles in many respects); and the two repressed spinsters who run the school also bear comparison with those of Appleyard College.

Nevertheless, The Falling seems to filter similar concerns through a more ‘punkish’ sensibility. Setting the film in the late 1960s allows for much more explicit discussion of sex, including references to orgasm, abortion, menstruation and incest. Lydia (notably played by Maisie Williams, best known for Game of Thrones) has short dark hair, and wields a subversive power, both by directly challenging adult authority, and through facial tics that hint at an almost supernatural, demonic control over the other girls. Lydia is the charismatic source of ‘gender trouble’ here; but the girls as a whole are much more experienced than the adults around them seem to assume, and much more resistant than they would wish. There is a kind of solidarity among the group, both spoken and unspoken – the girls smile faintly to each other as the fainting fits occur, as though they recognize something that cannot be spoken aloud. On the other hand, there are also some significant power struggles within the group: Lydia is fairly brutal towards Susan, who attempts to take Abbie’s place in her friendship. In all these respects, these are not the dreamy, innocent girls of Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Indeed, the connections between adolescent sexuality, illness and death recur throughout the film – and here the more relevant comparison would be with The Virgin Suicides. These connections appear even in seemingly incidental details. Kenneth and Abbie refer to orgasm as ‘a small death’ (la petite morte), a line that Lydia subsequently echoes in a whisper as she has sex with Kenneth. The girls finger and puncture a cracked egg in their science lesson (where there is a poster of the phases of the moon on the wall); they discuss how to induce abortion with the aid of gin and a knitting needle, or by having sex; Lydia deliberately drops a tray of red hair dye (menstrual blood?) on her mother’s kitchen floor. The fainting fits themselves involve sensuous movement, and seem to invoke a kind of ecstatic delirium, rather than pain.

Here again, it seems that adult women are the primary source of repression (aside from Kenneth, there are no men in the film). This is apparent right from the start of the film, when Abbie is disciplined for wearing her skirt too short (and Miss Mantel also spots a love bite on her neck); Lydia later rolls her own skirt up in defiance. The art teacher, who has also suffered from the fainting episodes, is dismissed when it turns out that she is pregnant. On one level, Miss Alvaro and Miss Mantel both conform to the embittered spinster stereotype – and in the latter’s case, there is some implication that she has been abandoned or ill-treated by men in the past. In a revealing reflection on this, Miss Alvaro complains: ‘this generation… they think they’re so misunderstood. If they had any idea what it’s like to be a middle-aged woman, they’d know what misunderstood meant!’ Both women then collapse in laughter. However, Lydia’s mother Eileen is also seemingly frozen or paralysed by her past trauma at the hands of Lydia’s father: she is unable to go out of the house, and runs her hairdressing business from her kitchen. Like Miss Alvaro, she smokes constantly; and her heavily made-up face is like a mask. For all its melodrama, the ending seems to provide some kind of resolution for her, not least in that she leaves the house for the first time in years.

There has been very little in-depth critical discussion of The Falling, although it’s notable that the contemporary reviews were extremely polarized. Some critics praised its originality, its dreamlike atmosphere and its ambiguity: Mark Kermode in The Guardian, for example, called it ‘transcendent, indefinable, magical’. However, others found the film ludicrous, unrealistic and laboured. Reviews on sites like IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes are similarly very divided. In some ways, this divergence of opinion seems to reflect the troubling nature of the film itself: it contains an uneasy mix of horror and absurd comedy, and (like the other films I am discussing) it ultimately refuses explanation.


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