Tale of Tales
A rich, absorbing, decidedly adult take on fairy tales that might put one in mind of Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves, but more for want of other similarly grown-up-skewed fare than direct tonal similarities. A selection of three cautionary stories based on the works of Giambattista Basile, which in turn influenced the more renowned likes of the Brothers Grimm, Matteo Garrone’s film features as its protagonists three different women in three different states of empowerment/disenfranchisement, but it might be a mistake to construe meaning overtly from that; this is more about the traps our desires set for us generally, rather than an express exploration of gender straightjackets.
The tales are only obliquely linked, through a funeral and a wedding in which the various royal characters gather, but Garrone ensures that, rather than a sequential portmanteau, the unfolding narratives keep pace with each other. At first sight, the second one we are introduced to, The Flea, appears to be the least enticing, concerning a king (Toby Jones, beautifully blinkered) who becomes devoted to a flea rather than his daughter Violet (Bebe Cave) whom he formerly doted on.
However, it quickly plunges into the progressively weirder, as the King begins feeding his tiny pet first his blood and then rare steaks; it grows to an enormous size, and thanks to design work that lends it a rather forlorn, cartoonish expression, the creature manages to be simultaneously repulsive and cute. Before it expires through being over-indulged. That the tale then takes a further distinctive left turn, as the daughter’s hand is offered to whoever can guess the provenance of the enormous flea skin hanging in the throne room (an ogre does), and we are thrown into the world of Violet’s captivity, rape, escape and recapture (the latter a grippingly shocking scene, as the caravan of travelling entertainers who rescued her are attacked and slain by the ogre), makes it the most compelling and unpredictable of the trio.
The least of the three, although it ends in suitably grisly fashion, The Two Old Women, finds a licentious king (Vincent Cassel) obsessed with the singing of who he believes to be a beautiful young maiden, but is in fact an aging crone, Dora (Hayley Carmichael), living with her similarly spinsterish sister, Imma (Shirley Henderson).
There’s commentary on the illusory nature of beauty here, albeit in a rather unfinessed manner; after being rejected by the disgusted monarch, Dora is transformed into a young woman (Stacy Martin) by a travelling witch, and thence gains the king’s hand in marriage. Most involving, however, is the tragic twist of poor, simple Imma, unable to adjust to her sister’s good fortune, having herself flayed on the understanding that it was this that brought Dora her youth and beauty. It’s here that the film finds its starkest contrast between the dream logic, magic wand waving of fairy tales and the sour reality of death and decay. Overall, though, the sequence is insufficiently commanding in and of itself, and additionally hampered by some terrible old age make-up that wouldn’t look out place on Billy Crystal’s Magical Max in The Princess Bride (it isn’t clear why Garrone went this route; it isn’t as if Carmichael also plays her younger self).
The first tale, The Queen, begins in full flight of fantasy, as the husband (John C Reilly) must slay a sea monster in order that his Queen (Salma Hayek) may give birth. She’s a stern, unsympathetic figure, failing even to give the King’s body a glance when the heart of the beast (which she must feed on) is presented to her, and refusing to allow her resulting son (Christian Lees) to spend time with his magical twin (Jonah Lees), born of the virgin who prepared said heart. It’s the relationship between the boys, well-played by the Lees brothers, that provides the pulse of this segment, and the Queen discovers to her cost that her unyielding will (“Violent desires such as yours can only be satisfied with violence”) will be directed back on her.
The moral aspect is most explicit here, but there’s an underlying thread throughout of selfish desires leading only to sadness, pain and loss, and perhaps too that, as the Necromancer advises, that “The equilibrium of the world must be maintained”. This isn’t a film interested in force-feeding a presiding theme, however (Cassel’s character goes ostensibly unpunished for his lusty predilections, save for losing a wife, which I’m sure he will get over); it is designed to work on a more instinctive, intuitive level, reflecting the original stories from which it derives.
Garrone’s achievement is extraordinary; you’d be hard-pressed to believe this only cost $14.5m. Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography is quite breath-taking, distinctive and evocative (he hitherto worked with Ken Russell, lensed The Empire Strikes Back and is Cronenberg’s regular director of photography). They take in a variety of Italian locations that blend seamlessly with stage sets (the aim was to evoke heraldic images and seventeenth century landscapes), passing from undersea realms to pristine banqueting halls (the Queen, in white, messily devours a bloody heart), to clifftop passes and forbidding forests.
The use of special effects (aside from the aforementioned make-up) is entirely complementary, mixing CGI, prosthetics and animatronics to yield a tangible, eerily distinctive quality that sets them apart from standard Hollywood pixels. And the score, by Alexandre Desplat, a composer I find very variable, is quite magnificent, perfectly uniting the storylines with a dreamy, lyrical insistence that this is just how things are, must be, and ever were.
Garrone’s film could possibly have done with a bit of tightening, but the Desplat score actually works in favour of that loose approach. And if his eclectic casting recalls the kind of Europudding pictures of the late ’60s and early ’70s (Reilly doesn’t quite fit), with at variance acting styles and nationalities, the visual flavour and tonal unity of Tale of Tales makes it seem entirely appropriate.