Tale of Tales
Directed by: Matteo Garrone.
Written by: Edoardo Albinati & Ugo Chiti & Matteo Garrone & Massimo Gaudioso based on the books by Giambattista Basile.
Starring: Salma Hayek (Queen of Longtrellis), Vincent Cassel (King of Strongcliff), Toby Jones (King of Highhills), John C. Reilly (King of Longtrellis), Shirley Henderson (Imma), Hayley Carmichael (Dora), Bebe Cave (Violet), Stacy Martin (Young Dora), Christian Lees (Elias), Jonah Lees (Jonah), Laura Pizzirani (Jonah's Mother), Franco Pistoni (Necromancer), Jessie Cave (Fenizia), Guillaume Delaunay (Ogre).
Matteo Garrone’s international breakthrough film, 2008’s Gomorrah, was a film documenting the modern day Mafia in and around Naples, which wanted to portray their actions with documentary-style realism. The film was a hit around the world, and won Garrone the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes. His 2012 follow-up, Reality, won that same prize at Cannes – but wasn’t nearly the hit its predecessor was. I have to say now, though, that a few years removed from both films, it is Reality that has stayed with me – its observations about celebrity culture and reality TV, the realism edging into fantasy as the film progressed, and its fine lead performance (by a convicted murderer), stuck with me more than Gomorrah’s undeniable anger and power. His most recent film, Tale of Tales, complete the journey from realism to fairy tale of Reality, as Garrone as adapted three tales from Giambattisa Basile, an Italian writer, who was an inspiration for the Grimm brothers. The darkness, violence and sexual underpinnings of those original, well-known Grimm fairy tales are all here in Tale of Tales and foregrounded. The film has a wonderful visual look – it’s clearly been done on a budget, but I love the special effects just the same. Yet, despite the great look, and a very talented cast, the movie never really goes anywhere. At Two hours, fifteen minutes, it’s a good hour too long for the very slight trio of tales Garrone is telling, and the film ends up going around in circles, before ultimately coming to its very obvious conclusions. There is talent and inventiveness in every frame of the film – it just doesn’t lead anywhere.
The trio of tales Garrone tells here all involved royalty (where precisely these kingdoms are, I have no idea, but apparently they are very close to each other). In one, a Queen (Salma Hayek), is so desperate for a child that she cannot conceive that she is willing to sacrifice anything to get one – including sending her husband (John C. Reilly) to fight a giant sea monster, so she can consume its heart and get pregnant. The virgin she needs to prepare that heart though also eats some of it – and so the two women, the Queen and the peasant, end up with nearly identical, albino offspring – who are best friends, no matter how hard the Queen tries to keep them apart. In the second story, Vincent Cassel plays a womanizing King, who thinks only with his penis. There are two old sisters in his kingdom, and one day he wakes up next to one of them – and is so disgusted by what occurred, he has his guards throw the old woman out the window – before she hits the ground however, she is saved – and transformed into a beautiful young woman – exactly the kind of woman the King who tried to kill her wants. She doesn’t seek vengeance however – but his love, and gets it, at the sacrifice of her sister. In the third, another King (Toby Jones) become so obsessed with his pet flea – that grows to the size of a hippo – that he allows his daughter (Bebe Cave) to be married off to an ogre – who suffers greatly in the early days of that marriage, and tries her best to escape it.
The “message” all of three fairy tales are quite clear – in each, someone sacrifices or ruins what should be pure love, chasing after something else. If the Queen accepted her son’s friendship with his doppelganger, everyone could have lived in happiness – instead, she forces her son to make some choices that he doesn’t even realize he is making. If the sister just accepted the love of her other sister, instead of chasing after a king who tried to kill her, the shocking last act of her sister would never have occurred. And if the King had spent more time with his daughter instead of his giant flea, she wouldn’t have been married off to and raped by an ogre. No one said fairy tales had to be subtle – and these ones certainly are not.
Of the three of these, really only the story of the King, his flea, his daughter and the ogre works from beginning to end. There are enough twists and turns in the story – enough strange images, and action, to sustain most of its running time. Jones is in fine form as the crazy King, and newcomer Cave is excellent as his traumatized daughter, who still finds the strength to fight back. And well, I have to say, I’ve never seen a giant flea before. The story of the two sisters and the womanizing King works least – probably because it sets up its stakes early, and then just keeps on repeating them over and over again – dragging things out for so long, only to reach the exact endpoint we’d been expected for a long time. The Queen and her son, falls somewhere in the middle – there are good moments, and a fine finale, although that comes surprisingly early in the film.
A bigger problem may be how Garrone cuts between the stories – which he does with little rhyme or reason. He may have been better served to simply let all three stories play out one at a time, and build to their climaxes (this also may have helped him realize they all run way too long). Instead, we go back and forth between the three stories seemingly at random. There is a real art to cutting between stories like this – the only real rule is that there has to be some kind of logic in how you do it – similar plot points, emotional points, etc. (the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer’s underrated Cloud Atlas does this wonderfully well). Garrone doesn’t get it.
The result is a movie I wanted to like – there is so many interesting visuals throughout the film, and I love dark fairy tales – but ultimately couldn’t. The damn movie just goes on and on, with no real point to it all. If Garrone had, say, added a fourth story, edited them all down into one, 90 minute movie, with one story following after another, he really may have had something here. Instead, he has a giant mess.