On the surface this is a series of fabulous fables about despotic kings, how they make the lives of their subjects insufferable, and their sons and daughters miserable. But it really is a tale of tales about inadequate fathers who make cataclysmically wrong decisions, and how those decisions affect the lives of their progeny for the worse.
Another portmanteau film; I hope this fashion is not because filmmakers think our concentration span is shot to shreds from surfing television channels and watching seven second commercials, and three second edits.
The lives of apparently disparate kings and queens and commoners are somehow woven together leaving key characters happy and matured, or in despair regressing to a hellish fate. But what a ravishing beauty the films gives us set in Italy and Sicily among castles you cannot believe exist, but they do, and without CGI enhancement.
There is a wonderful sparseness in imagery that stays in the mind. You can feel the intense heat rise from the Italian plains. You can hear the cicadas in the olive trees chirrup in profusion. (Well, cicadas added by the sound effects team.) Passion abounds in the beating breasts of disappointed men and women in each story. It’s riveting.
Italo Calvino quotes a well-known Tuscan proverb, “The tale is not beautiful if nothing is added to it.” In director Matteo Garrone’s vision of Giambattista Basile’s Neapolitan children’s classics, Tale of Tales, there appears to be a ton of good ideas added.
I got the impression the director wanted to put the dark, evil side of fairy tales firmly back into the centre of our consciousness, an element constructively removed by years of Disneyfication. We liked getting terrified when a child told late night stories before sleep, didn’t we? So why add saccharine?
What director can resist the sumptuous period costuming of the great Italian Baroque painters? Garrone goes to town on the costumes whether prince or poor. Women hitch up a veritable laundry of skirts as they walk or run. Men ponce around in puffy pantaloons.
He works in surrealist elements for, I think, a contemporary feel. There is something twenty-first century about the way couples relate to each other, are attracted and fall out again. There are moments the dialogue – and there’s not a great deal of it – lets the quality of the film down. It’s too contemporary, too plain spoken among all those ruffs, lacy bodices, and frenzied frolics. I might be correct in supposing scenes were shot twice, once in Italian for the home market, and once in English for the rest of us. The English version loses a lot in translation.
Having no relation to a garden fence, (pun intended) John C. Reilly, he of the crumpled face, is the hero King of Longtrellis who is told to kill a serpent – actually a giant axolotl with fangs – for his barren wife to bear the child she has singularly failed to have and pining to love. A tall skinny figure in a black mantle and hood reminiscent of the Grim Reaper appears from nowhere to tell us, for every death there is a life. Fair enough. We’re up for that. Who do we have to kill?
Dressed in diver’s helmet the subsequent gripping scene underwater with Reilly walking along a river bed brandishing a spear could have come straight out of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea only the scenes are fearful rather than mere stirring.
Reilly’s king is successful in his monster killing quest – otherwise there would be no fable – up to a point. He is mortally wounded, leaving Salma Hayek’s Queen to show him little affection in her ambition to get hold of the monster’s heart.
Salma Hayek as the Queen of Longtrellis sits in a stark white room, (or maybe it’s a Philippe Starck white room) at the end of a very long trestle table, methodically devouring the serpent’s giant heart that could be from any Nightmare on Elm Street. Soon we are given the obligatory female in labour pains and soon out pops a prince, heir to the throne. The process must be very familiar to the British Royal family.
The story winds out from there, and always in Garrone’s control, intertwining the trials of the pasty prince and his pauper brother with those of two possibly neighbouring kingdoms. One is ruled over by a carnal-crazed king, (Vincent Cassel) terrified of old women and being alone.
Cassel’s king mistakes a hag, (Hayley Carmichael) for a night on the tiles, and some truly yucky love making in the dark follows. That’s after we are witness to some horrible skin pinning and gluing, on par with any gross horror movie. The hag and her sister, (Shirley Henderson) are so venal and keen to become social climbers it’s clear mistaken identity will lead to disaster, and another disaster, followed by another, none of them predictable. And that’s the attraction of the multiple stories, that and the exquisite imagery.
For all the great performances in this ensemble cast, the reliable Toby Jones – last seen in the movie mistake called Dad’s Army – and his young co-star Bebe Cave, stand out for their beautifully nuanced interpretations of bored father and bored daughter. Cave does a lot of pouting until her father marries her off to an ogre by mistake and stupid pride. Things go determinedly downhill after that. Actually, they go uphill, to a cave in the side of a mountain where the ogre lives, leaving Cave in his cave while he goes hunting.
Jones plays a king obsessed by nurturing a pet flea until it grows so large he can hardly keep it secret from his staff. Cronenberg would enjoy the moments Jones feeds and cuddles his weird pet. Though jesters are everywhere not getting laughs, it’s Jones who plays the fool expertly, conveying vulnerability with a clowning talent and an elastic face, while Cave’s wide blue eyes keep us enthralled with all that’s going on inside her head.
What to make of it all? Truth be told, I really don’t know, but I enjoyed every minute, including the few slow bits. It’s a magical fantasy, so I didn’t think too deeply about things. I have a feeling each story adds up the journey women take, so perhaps this is a chic flick with added violence, and lots of symbolic menstrual blood.
At times, the action is thrilling, the sets purposefully theatrical, the set pieces brilliantly conceived. There are overtones of the superb The Labyrinth, but a step more into the gruesome. The wry sense of humour Garrone suffuses in his material where nobody is all good or evil, makes everyone a target for comic comeuppance.
At one point I wondered if any Scottish filmmaker would conceive of such subject matter and treat it in a like-minded way, we have plenty of traditional fairy stories to dramatise, after all. But I realised we never get past variations of discovering the Loch Ness Monster.
The film hasn’t performed well in North American territories but that’s a recommendation. What do Americans know about Italian culture outside Mafia families and pizza? Expect to be dazzled by lush cinematography, top-notch acting, and some repulsive scenes and some lovely nudity. Tale of Tales is an attempt to render children’s fairy tales as they should be seen and heard, and in that it’s oddly satisfying and well worth the ticket price.
- Rating: Four Stars
- Director: Matteo Garrone
- Starring: Toby Jones, Bebe Cave, Vincent Cassel, Salma Hayek
- Writer: Edoardo Albinati, Ugo Chitti
- Music: Alexandre Desplat
- Photography: Peter Suschitzsky
- Duration: 125 mins