Tale of Tales – Odd Fables with Opulent Visuals
An inherent irony often hinges on our perception of fairy tales. We embrace the idea of an irrational environment and bizarre characters in a fairytale, but at the same time we expect the tales to travel within the confines of our society’s moral values and hope that justice is meted to the antagonists. The Disney versions of fairy tales were just fair tales, where the sardonic allure of such a tale is replaced by neat, happily-ever after endings. However, the tales collected by Charles Perrault in France (in the late 17th century) and by Brothers Grimm in Germany (in the 19th century) still stirs our imagination and look through its psychoanalytic interpretations. Italian film-maker Matteo Garrone’s English language debut “Tale of Tales” (2015), based on three folk tales of 17th century Neapolitan poet Giambattista Basile, is a rare cinematic glimpse into riotous, stark and eccentric side of the fairy tales.
“Tale of Tales” is filled with lust and heavy on violence, although its narrative trajectory might not have a little of the crowd-pleasing set pieces from ‘Game of Thrones’. It has stunning visuals, distinctly offbeat, a little uneven and also defies to be enclosed within a genre. There’s also none of those post-modernist or feminist take; it’s simply a genuine tribute to the old folk tales that cuts into the ironies of human behavior. “Tale of Tales” boasts the word ‘interweaving or intertwining three tales’, but the tales hardly interweave at any of the critical point. It is best to approach these three tales as parallel stories, inter-cut at certain points to preserve its intrigue.
The film tracks the desire and obsession of the three troubled monarchs, hailing from different imaginary kingdoms. In the first story, a gentle king (John C Reilly) tries to appease the dejected queen (Salma Hayek), who is ready to do anything to bear a child. A traveling necromancer offers a solution to the queen’s problem, but warns that sacrifices must be endured to attain her desire. In the other parallel story, a luxuriant and lecherous king (Vincent Cassel) feels unsatisfied despite having orgies after orgies to fulfill his sexual appetite. He wanders around the city and takes fancy to a village girl, whom he hears singing with a beautiful voice, but wasn’t able to see her face.
The concupiscent monarch sends gifts to the girl’s voice to desperately invite her into his bedchamber. Alas, the girl is a very old woman named Dora (Hayley Carmichael) with a good singing voice, who lives with her sister Dora (Shirley Henderson). When the randy king holds on to his desire, bawdy thing ensues. In the final parallel story, an eccentric king (Toby Jones) pets a flea and it whimsically transforms into a gigantic being, reminiscing us of the Cronenbergian and Kafkaesque proportions. The king’s obsession with the pet drives him away from his lonely daughter (Bebe Cave), who dreams of getting married to a handsome prince. The king announces a bizarre contest for men to marry his daughter, which unfortunately forces her to be inside a cavernous den.
Unorthodox British film producer Jeremy Thomas is credited as the man for the sheer existence of this offbeat fairy tale. He has produced films of Bernardo Bertolucci (“The Last Emperor”, “Dreamers”), Cronenberg (“Naked Lunch”, “A Dangerous Method”), Gilliam’s “Tideland”, Jonathan Glazer’s “Sexy Beast”, etc. Director/writer Matteo Garrone has also finely extrapolated the folk tales to fit into the cinematic realm. Despite the poetic dimensions of the tales, Garrone’s script lacks some dexterity (may be due to clunky transition from one tale to the other) to cast a unique spell on its viewers. Nevetheless, the film engrossed me, even after watching lots of revisionist and post-modernist version of folk tales. The shortcomings in the script are overtaken to an extent by the way Garrone juxtaposes tender moments along with grotesque notions (especially in the scenes involving the two old sisters).
The chief themes of obsession, loss, betrayal, delirious desire, vanity, self-interest and longing are well diffused throughout the story, although Garrone at times fails to strongly tap into the contradiction and ironies of the tales. The earlier shot of the queen (played by Salma Hayek) cloaked in a black dress with a white background, devouring on a bloody red heart is a fine example of the Garrone’s stupendous visual irony. But for the most part, the director unfurls the narrative in a pretty straightforward manner and his serious actors too don’t cut into that underlying irony. The great relief with “Tale of Tales” is that it doesn’t try to work the contemporary politics and social ideals into the medieval setting. The monarchs are pompous, lecherous and frail beings like medieval kings ought to be.
The darkly humorous and bleak setting reminds us of Pasolini’s controversial ‘Trilogy of Life’ (“Decameron”, “The Canterbury Tales” and “A Thousand and One Nights”) and Fellini’s underrated “Satyricon”. There are also some slick homage to Terry Gilliam and Polish director Walerian Borowczyk (known as ‘Dadaist Prankster’). Director Garrone making a fairy tale in itself is a surprise, since he is known for naturalistic dramas like “Gomorrah” and “Reality” (I have only have seen these two of Garrone’s works). He gracefully imbues that naturalistic mode of film-making without eroding the wacky elements of the setting. Garrone’s immaculate framing (in real Italian setting) and shot choreographs are the movie’s stronghold and so is the production designer’s adorable work. Of the stellar cast, my most favorite performance is that of Toby Jones as a weak king, who is doomed by his misplaced sense of love (I was also fond of Bebe Cave’s blossoming performance).
“Tale of Tales” (125 minutes) consists of fables with no comfortable morals. Despite a few structural shortcomings, the movie works like a scythe scraping up the cruelty and the dangerous desires of human heart.