It’s finally here. Tale of Tales, Matteo Garrone’s first English language film, has finally been released on demand in the United States, so at long last I get to see it. I was excited about this one; I love myths and fairy tales and am especially fond of those rare dramatizations that bring the wild, dreamlike qualities of the stories to life. I don’t even care what liberties they take with the plots of the original stories, as long as they preserve the surreal. And I’m thrilled to report that somehow, Tale of Tales managed to live up to my hopes.
Tale of Tales, which is loosely based upon the fairy stories of Giambattista Basile, is a triptych of parallel narratives involving three royal families. The queen of Longtrellis (played by Salma Hayek) is desperate to have and keep a child of her own, no matter how many lives it costs. The lecherous king of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel) is infatuated with a pair of maiden ladies he saw from a distance, misjudging their advanced age; this leads him into a tryst with tragic results. The king of Highhills (Toby Jones) is obsessed with a flea he keeps as a pet, leading to no end of suffering for his daughter Violet (a particularly stunning performance by the young Bebe Cave). There are sea monsters to be slain; there are riddles to be solved; there are rock walls to climb and enchanters who may grant favors. And the story is bookended by traveling circus performers who breathe fire and walk the tightrope to entertain royalty. Tale of Tales is elaborate, intense to the point of traumatizing and a huge amount of fun.
From the first shot, it’s apparent that Tale of Tales is lovingly filmed. In the poorly made dreck I’ve been reviewing, the essential nature of artistry with the camera is forgotten, as if a film were only a play shown on a screen instead of a stage. Tale of Tales does not have this problem. The camera is a storyteller, an active eye that caresses the characters and sets with an almost scandalous intimacy; we feel what they feel and see as they see. There are whole scenes that leave the audience in tantalized confusion as the camera dances around a character, refusing to reveal too much at a time. And it’s no wonder that the camera is so infatuated, because the settings and costumes are delightful. The most sumptuous, intricately designed palaces give way to tangled green forests and austere desert cliffs. Everything depicted is twice as colorful as real life, just as it should be in a myth.
The plotting in this film is a thing of beauty– every time I thought I knew what would happen, my expectations were thwarted; yet, every event felt fitting in retrospect. The stories feel like myth, like the raw, vibrant versions of folk tales before they’re watered down so as not to frighten children. They are nasty, dark, tragic, beautiful and somehow very truthful, despite the outlandish nature of the events. This earthy truthfulness is not only due to the writing, but also to the actors’ performances. Archetypical roles such as the tenacious young prince, the ogre, the helpless princess or the narcissistic queen are played with such vibrancy and nuance that they feel fresh. These characters are human beings, real people, who feel real feelings as they act out stereotypical roles in a myth.
Tale of Tales is not without its flaws. The buildup to each story’s individual climax was a little slow for my taste, a bit long in the tooth. The payout at the end of each tale was worth it, but it came a bit close to meandering. An additional issue is that I waited in vain for the three stories to mesh together somehow, when in fact they barely touched. The reader should be warned that the film makes sense on a surreal, cerebral, fantastical level and not 100% of the time on a purely logical one. Preternatural characters appear without explanation, and the parameters of the magic at work are anybody’s guess. I enjoyed that immensely, but others might find it frustrating.
I also have to warn anyone not deeply familiar with myth that Tale of Tales is graphically violent, more than a little scary, and contains a great deal of sexual content. There are lots of bare breast and a few instances of sex on camera. To me, these all fit into the category of art rather than pornography, according to the criterion I mentioned in a previous post, but they’re likely to offend the delicate palette. The violence in Tale of Tales not pornographic either, but it is intense and omnipresent; there is plenty of blood, suffering and trauma, and the camera does not shy away from showing it. Tale of Tales is a fairy tale, but there is no part of it that is suitable for children or any but the most mature teenagers.
In short, Tale of Tales is a gorgeous, cerebral and entertaining fairy tale for mature viewers. Despite its few flaws, it is well worth a watch.
(Image: the promotional poster for Tale of Tales, used in accordance with fair use principles.)