TALE OF TALES
Director: Matteo Garrone
Stars: Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones
* * * 1/2 (out of 5)
So many recent cinematic fantasy tales are defanged to protect their mass appeal, that when a genuinely adult fable appears, the effect is disconcerting. Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales, based on three stories from 17th century Italian poet Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone, doesn’t just harken back to the seductive, dark power of original fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault or Hans Christian Andersen; it also reconnects to the movies’ not-so-distant past, where the likes of Neil Jordan’s Company of Wolves, or more recently, Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, proudly get their freak on. “Happily ever after” is not the endgame here. And no kids’ fast food tie-ins are going to be inspired by Salma Hayek tucking into the giant, bloody heart of a sea monster.
The trio of barely overlapping parallel stories take in a queen’s desperate attempts to conceive a child – hence Hayek’s unhappy meal – and a pair of deluded kings, one libidinous monarch (Vincent Cassel) beguiled by the siren song of an elderly crone, the other (Toby Jones) more concerned with his pet giant flea than his own daughter. In each one, a heart’s desire is delivered with a painful sting. And while the stories themselves have a twist in the tail, the delivery is straight and true – there’s no Shrek-like self-awareness here. When Garrone ventures into the woods, unlike the Stephen Sondheim meta-musical and its recent movie adaptation, he isn’t goofing around (though of course Sondheim has serious stuff to say too).
It’s interesting too that Garrone’s focus often drifts to the women in his stories – Hayek’s warped maternal love in one, mirrored by the tragic repercussions on Jones’s daughter Violette (Bebe Cave) who is sacrificed in marriage to an ogre. And rather than home in on Cassel’s lechery in the third tale, the emotional potency comes from when one of the two elderly sisters is magicked into a lissome beauty (Stacy Martin) and how the obsession with youth destroys her abandoned sister (Shirely Henderson). Themes of metamorphosis and transformation recur, usually with fraught consequences.
A world away from his previous, more social-realist Cannes prizewinners Gomorrah and Reality, Garrone’s achievement here is to create fully formed fantasy kingdoms of fantastical monsters and magical curses. The largely practical effects and striking baroque locations from Tuscany to Sicily, give the film a tactile, substantive quality that many CGI-heavy lightweight fantasies lack. Visually it’s a sumptuous feast, from Dimitri Capuani’s production design to Massimo Cantini Parrini’s extravagantly lavish costumes. There’s also a touch of the Fellini grotesques in the background casting – and superb make-up on the more conventionally attractive leads.
The constant shuttling between tales certainly keeps the action moving, but occasionally the shift in tone, from bawdy gags to gory violence, jars. Hayek is in a tremulous psychodrama, while Cassel appears to have come straight from a stage pantomime – you expect a reciprocal chorus of, “Oh no she doesn’t!” after his every hammy line. Unsurprisingly it’s the tale and the actors most successfully blending the humour and horror that works best, Toby Jones and newcomer Bebe Cave emerging as perhaps surprise stars of the show.
If there’s one other drawback, it’s that modern audiences, so familiar with the contemporary tweaks and revisions overlaid on ancient fables, might get a little restless with the traditional, A to B to C tale telling. Though Garrone does tap into something primal, sometimes he also plods into the pedestrian, rarely achieving the true wonder of, say, Pan’s Labyrinth. The final image, though, is a stunner and pulls you back around to the idea that ultimately Tale of Tales is an admirable high-wire act of daring and imagination.
Grimm-like, grim and gorgeous, Tale of Tales is a fine reminder that fairy tales weren’t always only, you know, for kids. Splitting the film into three concurrent stories makes for uneven and sometimes predictable diversions but at its best, the film conjures up the true dark art of fables able to stand the test of time.
To read the original review at IGN.com click here: Tale of Tales IGN review