Tale of Tales (2015) dir. Matteo Garrone

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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 ToT7singing 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).

ToT4Highhills 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.

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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.

ToT5Tale 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.

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Rust and Bone (2012, dir. Jacques Audiard)

It is becoming increasingly difficult to approach a Jacques Audiard film without a high level of expectation, specifically, after the commercial success of his last cinematic effort, A Prophet (2009). One aspect which can be attributed to Audiard is that he knows men, or at least has the ability to write and cast them particularly well. His films have boasted memorable male protagonists played, with aplomb, by the likes of Mathieu Kassovitz (A Self Made Hero), Vincent Cassel (Read My Lips), Romain Duris (The Beat That My Heart Skipped) and of course A Prophet‘s Tahar Rahim. Rust and Bone, similarly, can also offer a critique in performative masculinity with stellar work by Matthias Schoenaerts (Bullhead). The difference here is that this film also glorifies the acting prowess of Marion Cotillard, thankfully back to La Vie en Rose (2007) and Little White Lies (2010) quality after a few, dubious, sub-standard English-speaking roles.

Ali (Schoenaerts) and his five-year old son Sam (Armand Verdure) drift from place to place, stealing to survive, until they leave Belgium and move to Antibes to live with his sister Anna (Corinne Masiero) and her husband Foued (Mourad Frarema). Ali begins work as a nightclub bouncer when he meets Stephanie (Cotillard) a discontent Orca trainer whose life leaves her cold. The circumstances of their chance meeting find her in the unlikely position of damsel-in-distress with Ali jeopardising his job in order to help her, however, devastating destiny reunites their respective damaged souls when Stephanie suffers a horrific accident and friendship flourishes.

This film falls into the melodramatic genre; a love story between two dislikeable, yet at times relatable, characters whose life adversity throws them together to forge remnants of a relationship. Audiard communicates, beautifully, the sheer messiness of love and delivers a dramatic narrative which remains (for the most part) unsentimental but completely empathetic. After the accident, Cotillard’s Stephanie faces life with emotional determination  and independent dignity wherever she can but it is Ali who reawakens her sexuality and desire for life. It is through these raw acts of passion that the viewer  sees Ali’s softer side.

While Cotillard may be showered with acting plaudits following the film’s cinematic release, it is the male protagonist who is the most interesting to read. Ali is animalistic in his gait; father and lover are not roles that fit comfortably and when he loses his temper with Sam it is hard to empathise or identify. He is a fighter, and it is through the bare-knuckle boxing sequences that the viewer not only sees the man in his “natural” state but starts to gain an insight into Stephanie’s lust. There is, thankfully, more to him than violent outbursts, there has to be to warrant anybody loving him. It is his clumsiness, pragmatism and simplistic way of viewing the world which make him almost childlike and therefore more relatable; he is literally the tower of strength, when present, of the picture, carrying Sam and Stephanie on his shoulders.

There is a cool detachment to Rust and Bone which is, ultimately, why it is so successful as a piece of drama. Cotillard and Schoenaerts are outstanding in their respective roles and their magnetism both attracts and repels them as Stephanie and Ali. That said, there is one small criticism in relation to the end sequence, following the fade. It felt excessively sentimental, predictably unwarranted and resolutely manipulative. The emotional intensity which has the viewer captivated from the start ceases rather suddenly and, somewhat, spoils what had been leading up to be a truly accomplished piece of cinema.