Tale of Tales (2016, dir. Matteo Garrone)
Tale of Tales is an adaptation of a few fairy tales collected by Italian folklorist Giambattista Basile in the 15th century. Basile’s work would later inspire the Brothers Grimm to publish their collections in the early 19th century. So in this film, there are stories very unfamiliar to American audiences and likely most moviegoers around the world. The stories are loosely interconnected the film cuts between them in simple acts, with all three coming together in the final scene.
The first tale concerns a queen (Salma Hayek) who desperately wants a child. Her husband, the king (John C. Reilly) follows the advice of a wise man and hunts down a sea monster so that the queen may eat its heart and bear a child. The king dies in the process, and the woman who prepares the heart for consumption becomes pregnant from its magic. The unexpected cross-pollination results in a pair of identical twins from two different mothers whose lives as adults become fatefully intertwined despite the queen’s protestations. The second tale tells about a lustful and hedonistic king (Vincent Cassel) who hears beautiful singing and tracks it down to a cottage in the village below his castle. He is unaware the voice belongs to an aged woman and enters into a dance of seduction with her. Magic becomes involved, and this story goes to some horrific places. The third and final story concerns a silly king (Toby Jones) who becomes enamored with raising a flea until it becomes the size of a large dog. His daughter is caught up in the romance of chivalrous stories and wants a husband. The king holds a contest, and she ends up with a less than desirable suitor.
The practical effects work in the film is stunning. The film is one of those where we see the craftsmanship of fields in film production that are a dying art. Very minimal computer-generated effects are used and instead we have magnificent puppetry and makeup work. The costume and set design is also at a remarkable level. The castles and buildings used in the film add the fairy tale nature of the whole piece. I was reminded by behind the scenes content I’ve read and seen in Fellini’s films and how he went out of his way to employ these craftsmen and women who grow smaller in number by the day. Garrone makes a major case for practical effect in film production.
There is little character development in each story, but that’s expected with the emphasis on creating a fairy tale tone and atmosphere. These are morality plays, so the characters are larger than life and representative of points of view rather than individuals. That said, I did find some character moments in the second tale, the story of the elderly woman, to be quite painful, especially its grotesque and heartbreaking conclusion. The one thematic thread tying all three stories together is that of “be careful what you wish for”. No handsome prince is coming to save the day and instead we have three prominent female figures struggling to deal with expectations placed on them and their personal desires.
Director Garrone has previously directed Gomorrah, a hyper-realist film that tells a slice of life, almost documentarian story, of the influence Italian organized crime, has on the life of the nation’s citizens. He brings that same non-judgemental eye to these fairy tales to create a type of film that is unique beyond the deluge of fairy tale revisionism that is quite popular these days.