Mark Reviews Movies

Tale of Tales


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Matteo Garrone

Cast: Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones, Shirley Henderson, Hayley Charmichael, Bebe Cave, Christian Lee, Jonah Lees, Stacy Martin, Guillaume Delaunay, John C. Reilly, Laura Pizzirani, Franco Pistoni

MPAA Rating: Not rated

Running Time: 2:13

Release Date: 4/22/16 (limited); 5/27/16 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | May 27, 2016

By the end of the prologue, Tale of Tales has given us a dire prophecy, a battle with a fearsome sea monster, and the sight of a refined, humorless queen sticking her face into and chomping on the heart of the water beast. The film is based on Giambattista Basile's Pentamerone, a collection of fairy tales—some of which, almost 200 years later, would get the Brothers Grimm treatment. I don't recall any of the Grimm tales featuring a character eating a monster's boiled heart. One of those stories, though, did have a hunter disemboweling a big, bad wolf to save a little girl's grandma. In other words, what happens in the film's stories is at least as gruesome and grotesque as a few of the fairy tales that everyone remembers from their childhood.

One of the pleasures of director Matteo Garrone's film is the way each of these three stories feels familiar in some way. The screenplay by Garrone, Edoardo Albinati, Ugo Chiti, and Massimo Gaudioso doesn't adapt the obvious stories, even though Bastile's collection included versions of "Sleeping Beauty," "Rapunzel," and "Cinderella" (in which the wicked stepsisters cut off their heels and toes to try to fit into the glass slipper, if we're continuing with the sometimes forgotten gory bits of these stories). The adaptation goes deeper, finding tales that aren't told to children before they go to sleep (Amusingly, Bastile's book, in its original Neapolitan, has the secondary title Entertainment for Little Ones). The reasons for that become obvious.

Even so, there's a sense of déjà vu, for example, when a prince and a poor boy, who look identical to each other, switch places so that the prince can escape the pressures of royalty (a more modern fable, of course). It's the same feeling of something being piqued in the memory that comes with the vision of a golden-haired princess being held captive by a fierce and cunning—not to mention resilient—creature. There's also the story of an old woman who cons a lustful, younger man into believing she's a fair maiden, although I primarily recall that as the premise of a bawdy joke. The bit with the king who becomes obsessed with his pet flea is, as it turns out, an actual fairy tale from Basile's book. Wonders never cease.

The point is that Garrone and his fellow screenwriters have tapped into something almost comforting in their selection of stories to adapt. Even with the violence and gore of the prologue, the film lulls us into a place with which we're well-acquainted—memories of bedtime stories and childhood reading. Then it shatters that feeling of safety.

The three tales are intercut together. The first concerns the King (John C. Reilly) and Queen of Longtrellis (Salma Hayek). The Queen desperately wants a child, but she is unable. Enter a necromancer (Franco Pistoni), a gangly man in a black cloak who has a solution: If the Queen eats a sea monster's heart, which has been cooked by a virgin, she will become pregnant. The hunt sequence is like something from out of a lost silent film, with the King in an old-fashioned diving suit and Garrone relying on practical effects to create the newt-like beast (making the computer effects when it's awoken more convincing). He takes the same approach—and gets a similar effect—with a frightening, large bat later in the film.

Sixteen years later, the Queen's son Elias (Christian Lees) is nearly a man. He looks exactly like his best friend Jonah (Jonah Lees, the two actors are identical twins), the son of the virgin (Laura Pizzirani) who became pregnant from the fumes of the boiling heart. The Queen disapproves of the boys' friendship, because she wants her son all for herself. She attempts to find various ways to keep the boys apart.

In another kingdom, the King of Highhills (Toby Jones), ruling from a castle on—you guessed it—a high hill, has a daughter named Violet (Bebe Cave), who is eager to marry. While presiding over a music performance by his daughter, the King meets a new friend: a flea that happily follows his commands. He locks himself away in his chambers, doting on his pet and ignoring everything else. Later, he devises a seemingly impossible test to keep any potential suitors from taking away the only human that he loves. On that note, cue an ogre (Guillaurne Delaunay).

The third tale features Dora (Hayley Carmichael) and Imma (Shirley Henderson), two older sisters in the kingdom of Strongcliff (Of the three realms, this one has the most striking design—resting on a slanted mountainside with the castle on top and the decrepit village below). Their King (Vincent Cassel) is a lecherous man, and while frustrated with the lack of attention at the local brothel, he hears Dora's singing from the window. He believes she is a young woman, and when he comes calling, she does not convince him otherwise. She comes up with a plan to only show him a small part of herself to prove her beauty.

Naturally, things go wrong for nearly all of the characters here. Happy endings are an impossibility. Bittersweet ones are the best for which any of the characters can hope. Terrible fates seem inevitable, as the characters' deepest desires lead to a series of brutal conclusions—murder, attacks by misunderstood monsters, flaying. All of them, in some way, are self-inflicted. We usually associate fairy tales with a lesson, but Tale of Tales is more interested in an observation than moral. It's a film about desperation and the tragedy of getting what you want.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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