Long, long ago there lived a Queen (Salma Hayek); a desperate, seemingly infertile Queen who wished for a child more than anything. Her husband, the King (John C. Reilly) would (and does) do anything to make his love happy and provide her with the child she so yearns, and so begins Matteo Garrone’s (Reality, Gomorrah) first English language feature Tale of Tales. The tone of which is set from the very beginning as the King of Longtrellis wades into water to slay the sea monster and pluck out its heart thus providing his beloved with the bloody, and delicious, means to conception and the shortest gestation period ever. His untimely demise brings the neighbouring Kings; sex-crazed libertine Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel) and sweet melancholic Highhills (Toby Jones) to the funeral procession, and all three kingdoms merge, intersect and ultimately influence the other as the triptych of tales unfurl, some sixteen years later.
Queenie is now mother to a teenage albino Elias (Christian Lees) – taking on the colouring of the sea beast – and who is spending a lot more time with his identical twin brother from another mother, Jonah (Jonah Lees). The Royal mother is overcome with envy as the two boys; one princely, one a pauper make adventures of their own.
Strongcliff is a skin-crawling, somewhat beastly Don Juan-type whom women seem to grow tired of very quickly. Looking for another distraction, he hears a beautiful singing voice and follows it, mistaking an old crone (played respectively by Hayley Carmichael and Stacy Martin) for a beautiful Princess and so begins an obsessive courtship, of sorts, (through a door) chaperoned by her equally wrinkled sister Imma (Shirley Henderson).
Highhills is a widower who as his only daughter Violet (Bebe Cave) matures becomes more attached to a flea than the fruit of his loins, and when said pet passes on (respiratory issues) provides a fun guessing game, the prize of which is the hand of Violet. Step forward the Ogre (Guillaume Delaunay) and the poor Princess is whisked away, under duress, to what essentially is a hole in a mountain.
While the majority of audiences – whether filmic and/or literary – will recognise the conventions, motifs, metaphors, plots and characters of the traditional fairy tale, they may even attribute to the Brothers Grimm. However, without putting too finer point on it; the Italians came first. Straparola inspired Giambattista Basile, upon whose tales –The Enchanted Doe, The Flea, and The Old Woman Who Was Skinned– this film is loosely based. In his work, Basile, deployed the loquacious gifts of female storytellers while Garrone adapts to forefront the role of women in his carnivalesque cinematic tale for they all can be read as rebellious females manipulating their surroundings and fashioning their own fates.
The film is a real feast for the eyes combining the Italian setting with baroque beauty, brimming with flamboyant metaphors which render Tale of Tales as sitting somewhere between repulsive and hilarious. Garrone clearly appreciates the richness, diversity and complexity of the fairy tale, especially those from his motherland. It intrigues, has much to say on the power of civility and transformation and is completely wicked and highly pleasurable. Not least due to its direction but the special visual effects (practical, digital art, props) and ageing prosthetics, provided by mAKINARIUm are outstanding, as is Massimo Cantini Parrini’s gorgeous and sumptuous costuming; fit for any Royal. Alexandre Desplat delivers a dreamy score, expressive in tone and timbre which really lifts and enhances those darker moments.
Tale of Tales is a charming curio – dark, gruesome and mirthful; a transgressive grotesquery, thematically rich, irreverent and unctuous. Those fiabe that we hold dear as children are just as important to us as adults, and when they are as wonderfully made as this, even better.
And they all lived happily ever after…yeah right.