Tale of Tales is the latest offering from Italian director Matteo Garrone (Gomorrah), which marks his English language debut. Adapted from a series of medieval Italian fairy tales by Giambattista Basile, which predated the brothers Grimm and their notoriously entertaining yarns by a considerable amount of years.
The story involves three intertwining tales of dark fantasy. The first of which unfolds with a forlorn looking Queen Of Longtrellis (a never better Salma Hayek), who is desperate to have a child. Her loving husband the King Of Longtrellis (an underused John C. Reilly), will do whatever he can to make her wish come true. One night a mysterious soothsayer arrives at their magnificent medieval castle and informs the doubting couple that he has a solution to their problem. In order for the Queen to be able to conceive, she must eat the heart of a sea monster, then have the heart cooked by a virgin. The ensuing quest proves fruitful, yet fatal.
The second storyline involves the King Of Highhills (Toby Jones), an eccentric monarch who happens to fall in love with a flea. Meanwhile, his lovely daughter Violet (Bebe Cave) is desperate to get married to a suitable suitor, yet she must rely on her father’s unorthodox methods to find her a man.
The third story involves a libidinous King Of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel), whose lustful desire is unquenchable. After a period of excessive wenching, the king becomes enchanted by a beguiling, youthful voice he encounters from his clifftop castle. He pursues the voice like a lifelike Pepe Le Peu. The King is unaware that such a sweet and youthful lilt belongs to a haggard old laundry crone. The crone is flattered at such attention, yet she cannot bring herself to display her haggard features to her virile King, but with the help of her fragile sister Imma (Shirley Henderson) they hatch a cunning plan.
Tale Of Tales is good fun. It is full of weird and wonderful moments that have a dark edge. These are fairy tales for adults, in the same vein as The Company Of Wolves and The Princess Bride which are not necessarily for children. Each tale is packed with incident and works well on an allegorical level. They represent quandaries that have afflicted people forever: How do we hold on to the beauty of our youth, how far will one go to protect your children, what happens when you get what you want? These are all fascinating questions to explore and Matteo Garrone has done a fine job of weaving these medieval tales into a coherent and entertaining whole.
The cast are uniformly wonderful. Salma Hayek is impressive as the single minded Queen, who will go to extreme lengths to protect her strange son. Toby Jones is wonderful as an eccentric King who pays a heavy price for his abnormal behaviour. His relationship with his daughter Violet is heartfelt, yet combative. Their segment is the most impressive of the three and is the most substantial in terms of screen time.
Vincent Cassel is great as a caddish King who is blinded by his uncontrollable lust. He has a tendency to ham things up at times, with varying results. He is an enjoyable screen presence, but he is not afforded enough screen time to make a sufficient impact. His segment is the weakest of the three.
The atmosphere of Tale Of Tales is palpable. The set design makes the most of the Italian landscape, especially the wildly different form of the castles depicted. There are moments of shocking body horror that would make David Cronenberg proud. One of the characters is even flayed alive. The hair and costume design ably complement the characters that inhabit them.
The music by Alexandre Desplat is reminiscent of Danny Elfman’s finest work. It has the jarring effect of a music box that complements and enhances the material to a tee. It is a perfect accompaniment to such weird material and demonstrates again why Mr. Desplat is one of the finest composers working today.
The cinematography by Peter Suschitzky squeezes every drop of medieval authenticity from the locations chosen. The minimal special effects work well to add a sense of otherworldliness and at times makes your skin crawl. You may even regard fleas differently after you see their depiction here.
It is refreshing that a film like this has been made for adults. This could so easily have been watered down to suit a mass audience, yet it has been made specifically for adults who are often ignored when it comes to fairy tale adaptations. Tim Burton could have made this, but I feel it would not have been half the film it is. It has echoes of Baron Munchausen in its dark humour and I enjoyed it all the more for it. This is the type of film that stays with you long after viewing. If you allow yourself to go with it, Tale Of Tales will cast its magic spell on you.
Tale of Tales is on general release now