SEX and religion, as Professor MacCulloch is currently reminding
us on BBC2, are intimately related. The Falling (Cert. 15)
clearly connects them. It opens with a tree, beautifully shot by
Claire Denis's long-time cinematographer Agnès Godard - the scene,
it emerges, of many a trysting. This eventually gives way to the
repressed figure of Eileen (Maxine Peake), unable to look the
world, and particularly at her daughter Lydia (Maisie Williams,
best known as Arya Stark in HBO's Game of Thrones), in the
The contrast is between life in decay (it is autumn) and
adolescent contemplation of what the springtime of life will offer.
A voiceover recites Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality",
recalling a time when everything "did seem apparelled in celestial
light", but these things "I can see no more".
While we never lose sight of home life, the emphasis shifts to
school, full of hormonal girls forever talking about "it". Lydia's
best friend Abbie (newcomer Florence Pugh) has recently had sex,
more out of curiosity than desire. The two girls' own relationship
verges on eroticism. This is the film title's first layer of
meaning. Falling isn't a reference to schoolgirl crushes.
It's 1969, when old restraints are jettisoned, boundaries are
pushed in terms of conduct, and female sexuality is being
When the pregnant Abbie collapses and dies, pupils under Lydia's
leadership begin a second kind of falling: mimetic bouts of
spontaneous fainting, usually during "non-denominational worship".
A New Testament reading is interrupted by swooning teenagers, and
the entranced Lydia is carried out, as if crucified, on her
There's considerable evidence of mass psychogenic outbreaks both
then and now. The film attributes this particular one to a
generation of teachers, such as the stern Miss Mantel (Greta
Scacchi), whose characters have been shaped by male oppression. One
cannot quarrel with the director Carol Morley's good intentions,
but the film would have been better served if only she had left
more questions hanging. The film has been likened to Picnic at
Hanging Rock (1975),inasmuch as it concerns strange
occurrences around a group of schoolgirls, but Peter Weir (a
director whom one Jesuit film colleague describes as a mystic)
fills the screen with haunting but inconclusive images.
The Falling tries to explain it all away, not least in
terms of what religion does to sex. The result is not exactly
The Devils meets The Crucible, but it is
suggested that the girls' out-of-body transcendent experiences are
an alternative outlet in the face of sexual subjugation imposed by
Christian norms. Wordsworth is trotted out again at this point.
Women such as Eileen and the teachers, shaped by a former age, may
have forgotten the joy of being alive, whereas Lydia and others
still believe that "trailing clouds of glory do we come From
It is all admirable, but the film makes far too simplistic an
equation between sexual awakening and what it means to turn into
fully realised women. Implicitly, organised religion is blamed for
hindering this process. To be frank, The Falling is too
earnest for its own good, turning alarm into risibility. The
audience will have got the point long before the eighth or ninth
fainting fit occurs. The same goes for repetitive images of the old
oak. One ceases, out of boredom, to ponder what important questions
it or indeed the film as a whole are posing - which is a pity.
On release from today.