Tale of Tales presents three dark and bloody fairy tales — truly fantastic and quite wonderful flights of the imagination — yet it feels very real. Directed by Matteo Garrone, this is a lucid dream of a movie, an elaborately detailed period piece rendered in very physical and realistic terms.
The three episodes are taken from Pentamerone (aka The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones), a collection of fifty stories written by Giambattista Basile (1570-1632), which was posthumously published in two volumes in 1634 and 1636 (available from Amazon in a fine edition published by Penguin Classics). The collection contains the earliest known versions of fairy tales such as Rapunzel, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, predating the Brothers Grimm by 200 years. This was news to me.
The following two trailers give a sense of the film in different ways, and I think it’s worth including both of them here.
In the press notes for the film, Matteo Garrone says “I chose to tackle the universe of Basile because in his tales, I found that they blend between the real and fantastic which has always characterized my artistic endeavors. The stories covered in The Tale of Tales cover all of life’s opposites: the ordinary and the extraordinary, the magical and the everyday, the regal and the obscene, the straightforward and the artificial, the sublime and the filthy, the terrible and the tender, scraps of mythology and torrents of popular wisdom. The tales recount human feelings pushed to the extreme. From the first reading of the 50 tales which make up the book, me and my fellow screenwriters faced numerous choices in choosing the stories that we liked most and then making them credible, concrete, as if we were seeing them for the first time.”
In the first tale, the King and Queen of Longtrellis (John C. Reilly and Salma Hayek) are childless. The Queen is distraught and deeply depressed. They are told by an ominous visitor in the middle of the night that if the Queen eats the heart of a sea monster cooked by a virgin, she will become instantly pregnant, but that a sacrifice will be involved. The King, who only wants to please his wife, dons a diving suit and descends to the bottom of a nearby lake, where he encounters and slays a sleeping sea monster. Remember, all of this looks very real. So what if the suit has no visible means of supplying him with oxygen. It doesn’t matter. After consuming the sea monster’s heart in a highly visceral scene, the Queen becomes pregnant overnight and gives birth to a son the next day. The virgin who cooked the heart also gives birth. The two boys, Elias and Jonah (played by identical twins Christian and Jonah Lees), one rich and one poor, become close companions, though the Queen forbids it. Complications ensue.
In the second tale, the King of Highhills (Toby Jones) becomes obsessed with a flea that grows to the size of a large hog. He keeps it hidden in his chambers, feeding it chunks of meat. His only daughter Violet (Bebe Cave) has grown tired of her cloistered life with her father in their remotely located castle, and wants to leave. She begs her father to find her a handsome prince to marry, though she probably doesn’t anticipate an ogre (the real deal — nothing like Shrek), who drags her to a cave strewn with bones, or being temporarily rescued by a family of jugglers and tightrope walkers. There’s a kind of happy resolution, but Disney this is not.
The following clip shows how Violet ends up with the ogre. The King’s pet flea has died. He has it skinned and the hide hung in the great hall. He then announces a competition: anyone who correctly guesses the origin of the hide will win his daughter’s hand in marriage. He doesn’t want his daughter to leave, and assumes no one will get the right answer. Cue the ogre (Guillaume Delaunay).
In the third tale, the lecherous King of Stronghold (Vincent Cassel) hears a woman’s ethereal singing in the distance and is determined to learn her identity and seduce her, imagining that she is as beautiful as her voice. He doesn’t know she is one of two elderly sisters, Imma (Shirley Henderson) and the singer Dora (Hayley Carmichael). Thanks to a witch’s spell, Dora finds herself transformed into a beautiful young woman (played by Stacy Martin). The King decides to marry her. After the wedding, Imma appears and refuses to leave, demanding to know the secret of Dora’s youthful appearance. This does not end well.
In his first English language film, Italian director Matteo Garrone has succeeded admirably. I’ve seen two of his previous films, Gomorrah (2008), a fact-based gangster story, and Reality (2012), in which a Naples fishmonger becomes obsessed with appearing on Grand Fratello, an Italian reality television show based on Big Brother. Both are excellent. An important aspect of Tale of Tales is that it’s all done very seriously; there’s nothing tongue in cheek about it. Given the material, this could have been ridiculous if not handled right. But it was, and it works. It’s all in the telling.
The look of Tale of Tales is particularly rich and deeply textured, with a color palette suggestive of classical paintings. Peter Suschitzky was the cinematographer. His work includes Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (director: Irvin Kirshner, 1980), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (director: Jim Sharman, 1975), Mars Attacks! (director: Tim Burton, 1996), 11 films directed by David Cronenberg, and films directed by John Boorman and Ken Russell. The excellently scored music was composed by Alexandre Desplat, whose previous work includes his Oscar-winning score for The Grand Budapest Hotel (director: Wes Anderson, 2014) and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (director: David Fincher, 2008).
Here is a sampler of Desplat’s music for Tale of Tales.
Tale of Tales was shown at numerous international film festivals last year and is currently in limited theatrical release in the U.S. It is also available on demand from DIRECTV. — Ted Hicks