Directed by Matteo Garrone
Starring Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones, John C Reilly
Released on 17 June 2016
Fairy tales usually mean family entertainment, but a look back at some of the pre-Grimm ones shows they were certainly not for kids. Neither were the re-workings produced by the Brothers. Seventeenth century Italian poet Giambattista Basile’s collection, Pentamerone (Tale Of Tales or Entertainment For Little Ones), might have been used as the basis for the likes of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Hansel and Gretel, but his stories were definitely grown-up.
Three of them have made it to the big screen in Tale Of Tales, director Matteo Garrone’s first film in the English language. The link between them – albeit a tenuous one – is that they focus on the rulers of adjoining kingdoms. In the first, the Queen (Salma Hayek) is desperate to have a child at any price. That price turns out to be her husband (John C Reilly) who dies in the process, but she has a son, one that she has to keep with her for ever. Again, at any cost.
In the second, the King (Toby Jones) is so obsessed with a flea that he keeps it in secret, where it grows to the size of a dog. His fascination with his new pet is at the expense of his relationship with his daughter, who he marries to an ogre and nearly loses her forever.
In the third, the other King (Vincent Cassel) is a notorious philanderer, with his own harem. When he hears a woman singing, her voice is so beautiful he has to have her. Kept at a distance by the woman, he beds her in total darkness and then discovers she’s old and hideously ugly. He throws her out and, in the magical forest, she undergoes a transformation so he marries her in all innocence. But the spell can’t last forever. And she also has a sister.
The film demands you suspend your disbelief and you need to: you won’t have seen anything like this before, and I mean that in a positive way. It’s a film that constantly mixes the luxurious and beautiful with the ugly and grotesque. All three monarchs live in fabulous castles (all genuine locations, incidentally) enjoying the most opulent of costumes. Against that background are the grotesque and the sometimes gruesome.
In the first story, the spell that allows the Queen to have a baby involves eating the heart of a sea monster. It has to be cooked by a virgin, who isn’t that great in the kitchen as it still looks raw when it’s served up and Hayek gets blood all over her face when she eats it. See what I mean about suspending your disbelief? And in the third tale, the sister of the woman who’s been transformed meets a pathetic fate. Having seen how beautiful her sister is, she desperately wants to be the same and believes her when she says she was flayed (she wasn’t – it was a breastfeeding witch). So she finds somebody who is willing to do it to her. It’s enough to put you off plastic surgery for life.
If there’s any common ground between the three rulers, it’s their selfishness, and it causes them to risk losing the thing they hold most dear. The Queen’s longing for a child causes the death of her husband, the first king nearly loses his daughter forever and the second one is tricked into marrying somebody, who he will lose sooner than he thinks.
Visually, the film is full of sumptuous colours and has an elaborate, baroque style that’s a feast for the eyes. The stories also demand some significant special effects, such as the sea monster and the giant flea, but Garrone has turned his back on CGI and opted for something that’s closer to the puppetry that we see travelling entertainers using to entertain the monarchs. So both monsters are made of latex with at least one actor inside the shell, bringing the creature to life. It may not look as realistic as some of today’s digital wizardry, but this isn’t a film that’s meant to be realistic.
Tale Of Tales isn’t always a comfortable watch. The link between the three stories is tenuous, so the end result is sprawling, sometimes untidy and it generally feels overlong. It may be tiring, it may not be wholly satisfying, but it is strangely fascinating to the point of seductive. And it’s ever so slightly bonkers – even if you can’t quite put your finger on why!
Tale Of Tales is released in cinemas on Friday, 17 June and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 16 June, including an exclusive interview with Tale Of Tales star Toby Jones.