Tale of Tales is a sumptuous feast of a film, a visually splendid treat that retells and reworks traditional fairytale narratives, making for a rich and blackly comic cinematic experience that will leave you wanting more. It opens with a shot of circus performers, including a juggler with three pins (he drops one): the performers return at various important points in the film, and the film, much like that juggler, is mostly adept at keeping its narrative parts working together.
Co-writer and director Matteo Garrone and screenwriters Edoardo Albinati, Ugo Chiti, and Massimo Gaudioso have taken three tales by famed Italian writer Giambatista Basile to create a triptych film composed of European folktales that are darker, more grotesque, and filled with more violence and bloodshed than you’l find in any nursery book.
Many familiar fairytale tropes make their appearance: magic spells; birth/death duality; a princess held captive by an ogre; a pair of twins miraculously born to different mothers (one of whom is a virgin); an old crone restored to youthful beauty; a widowed king who neglects his daughter. Part of the film’s charm is in how it sets up the audience’s expectations of these narratives, only to tweak and twist the plots just enough to keep the suspense.
The three tales also involve familiar faces doing unfamiliar things. Salma Hayek has spent much of her career, sadly, being objectified and rarely in a powerful position. Here she is a queen desperate enough to be a mother that she will sacrifice her husband’s life for a child, and jealous enough as a mother that she will kill anyone she sees as a threat to the vicious hold she has on her son. She also devours a giant heart, and the look in her eyes at that moment, both avid and resigned, is worth the price of admission. This is easily the best work she has done, or been allowed to do at any rate, in years.
John C. Reilly is nobody’s idea of a dragonslayer, and yet here he is at the bottom of a lake killing a sea monster. Toby Jones seems destined to play fussy, weak little men, but it’s nice to see him play a fussy, weak little man who shows more attention to a giant flea (yes, really) than to his own daughter. And then there is priapic Vincent Cassel jumping on the bones of whichever wench takes his fancy. Okay, maybe Cassel’s role is the closest the film comes to typecasting, and he seems to be having a grand old time hamming it up even as he struggles to find the right emotional cue in the florid dialogue (“My honeysuckle!”). He brings his usual air of menace and lust, and acts like he’s the villain in a second-tier panto.
Fantasy films are generally excused a lot in terms of plot, as they are usually heavy on outlandish effects and thin on character. However, Tale of Tales is a fantasy film far closer to Pan’s Labyrinth than say, anything Disney has put out, with characters worth caring for, dark secrets, and very real stakes. The section involving Cassel’s character and two sisters (Shirley Henderson and Hayley Carmichael) has the makings of bedroom farce but turns into something tender and sad. Similarly, the initially comic sequence with Toby Jones and his pet flea ends in a gory struggle worthy of Game of Thrones.
The filmmakers are clearly enjoying these apparent contradictions. Alexandre Desplat‘s score is both dreamlike and ominous, as, I suppose, are most fairytales. The vaguely Renaissance setting is stark and grungy enough to almost make you smell the broth cooking in the kitchen, but rich enough to make you want to freeze frame and ogle the production design by Dimitri Capuani (Gangs of New York; Titus Andronicus) and costume design by Massimo Cantini Parrini (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; Van Helsing). The gorgeous cinematography is by David Cronenberg’s regular director of photography, Peter Suschitzky.
Not that Tale of Tales is without problems. The three stories are linked somewhat clumsily; the finale is rushed; some of the creature effects are perhaps not as finessed as they could be. The usually dependable John C. Reilly suffers in a role that is little more than a cameo and a plot device.
Still, though, in a cinema culture that values people wearing spandex amid bombastic, incomprehensible action, it’s thoroughly refreshing to see a fantasy film that is in every sense fabulous.
Verdict: Four Giant Fleas out of Five
Tale of Tales is in cinemas and on demand from June 17th