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When I first saw the trailer for Immortals, I wondered how Tarsem's newest film would be misinterpreted.

The mononominal director's work is uniquely open to misinterpretation; he makes films that no one seems to know how to watch. Everyone agrees they're visually gorgeous, but those who dislike them mostly say the same thing: there's no substance. As Richard Roeper put it in his review of Tarsem's second film, The Fall (2006): "It really adds up to a whole lot of nothing."

Empty beauty? Hardly. The Fall amounts to a passionate argument — in fact, the only possible argument — against suicide. It tells the story of an injured man who relates a fantastical story to a little girl in the same hospital. What most synopses miss is that the injured man is trying to trick the child into helping him kill himself.

That twist changes everything that follows: those gorgeous fantasy visuals contain a story as urgent, as serious, as Peter Jackson's in Heavenly Creatures or Guillermo del Toro's in Pan's Labyrinth. "It's my story too," the little girl pleads — which happens to be the only argument anyone can make against someone else's self-destruction.

Interestingly, Tarsem's first film, The Cell (2000) makes exactly the opposite argument in a similar story. The movie was marketed as a girl-meets-serial-killer flick (I'm sure the elevator pitch was "Silence of the Lambs on really good acid!"). Here too, there's a female character — Jennifer Lopez — entering into a man's fantastic private universe, as Lopez uses some best-unexplained tech to navigate the subconscious of a murderer she wants to heal. In this version, though, the man is unredeemed or unredeemable; his story ends by her hands.

At first glance, both movies appear to fall into comfortable genre categories; both transcend them. Taken together, the two films add up to an old question: to be, or not to be?

As for Immortals — the trailer sells it as a 300-esque sword-and-sandal disembowelment fest. But in fact, it may be Tarsem's most intimate work yet.

EPIC INTIMACY A former TV-commercial director — as well as director of The Cell, The Fall, and now Immortals — Tarsem describes his work as “personal.”

Advertising art

A little background first. Tarsem Singh Dhandwar: born in India, raised in Iran, schooled in the Himalayas. At 24, he told his father he wanted to study film. His father's response, as Tarsem tells it: "You don't exist anymore."

In the US, Tarsem shed his last two names and went to film school. He first made his bones in advertising — an abased art form if there ever was one. But he's never been ashamed of or apologetic about his work as a commercial director — "I'm like a prostitute in love with her profession," he's told more than one interviewer. Early in Tarsem's career, when David Fincher suggested they work together, Tarsem turned him down. As Tarsem recalled on a panel at WonderCon: "I said, 'I don't think I'm ready. I don't feel like making films, I love advertising, I love music videos, I'll be doing this for another decade and a half.' "

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