Cast: Salma Hayek, John C. Reilly, Toby Jones, Vincent Cassel, Bebe Cave
Director: Matteo Garrone
Running Time: 2 hours 5 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Matteo Garrone's adaption of a handful of 17th Century fairy tales from poet Giambattista Basile is an unwieldy but entertaining antidote to the usual studio brand of fantasy blockbusters. While films in that genre usually fashion spectacle for spectacles sake, Garrone is interested in how fairy tales form the basis for notions of sexuality, gender, youth, patriarchy, and identity. While Tale of Tales may not delve deeply into the themes it raises, the filmmaker's control over the eccentric tone; which veers wildly from whimsy to melancholy to grotsequery, is something to behold. Presenting a series of loosely interlocking stories and then cutting back and forth between them, Garrone manages to give us something disjointed, baggy, but unlike a lot of standard fantasy fare, fairly unpredictable.
Twin blonde brothers, an underwater sea creature, a queen eating a boiled heart, old hags feeding on breast milk, disobedient princesses, rulers obsessed with fleas, rampaging ogres; these are only a few of the ingredients in this garish brew. Making his English language debut, Garrone seems somewhat uneasy directing a cast that includes Salma Hayek, John C. Reilly, Toby Jones, and Vincent Cassel, all of whom seem to be wandering in from different movies. But this atmosphere of oddness; with flat dialogue and (purposefully?) tacky special effects, gives everything a wonky charm rather than a streamlined accessibility. The stories include the bond between a pair of albino twins (Christian Lees and Jonah Lees) born to separate mothers, a queen (Hayek) who will go to any length to bare a child, a king (Toby Jones) caring after a rapidly growing pet flea while ignoring his petulant daughter, and a depraved ruler (Cassell) falling for a shut-in old spinster without ever seeing her face. Without a formally consistent way of allowing the tales to mirror or bounce off one another, Garrone loses much in the way of thematic richness. Still, Tale of Tales retains the director's interest in farce and magical realism which dominated his last effort, the Fellini-esque parable Reality, resulting in a carnivalesque patchwork which hints at the kind of dark absurdism found throughout Pasolini's "Trilogy of Life".
To a certain degree, the lavish sets, melodramatic performances, sweeping camera movements, elaborate costumes, and Alexandre Desplat's bouncy score help offset the picture's structural problems and dangling plot threads. Beyond simple entertainment value, the film seems to be getting at abuses of power; from the queen's invocation of black magic in order to conceive, to Cassell's king being so obsessed with his sexual prowess that he mistakenly goes to bed with a deformed hag. These are stories about powerful people warped and mutilated by their positions, given to hubris and unwavering didacticism. These are stories that, despite their macabre freakishness, contain universal themes of youth, beauty, corruption, and twists of fate.
Ultimately, there's a streak of nasty fatalism running throughout Tale of Tales, something Garrone also brought to Gomorrah, his feature debut about the Italian mafia. If that film's nightmarish sense of pessimism was rooted in the gritty socioeconomic climate of it's milieu, then this one uses the basic elements of folklore to get at larger ideas of power, corruption, and the ugliness of human nature. However, if such themes don't always coherently translate, there's always the sight of Salma Hayek devouring the bloody heart of a sea serpent, an ogre crossing a chasm using a rope, a dancing bear, a mutant bat monster, and most humorously, Vincent Cassel tossing a deformed old women out an open window.