Tale of Tales (2015)

Beautiful and grotesque – director Matteo Garone’s visually stunning collection of dark fairy tales for adults Tale of Tales defies description.

Beauty And The Beast

by Alexa Dalby

Tale of Tales

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Tale of Tales is unlike anything I’ve seen before and probably never will again. The strands of three darkly adult fairy tales are interwoven into a tapestry of visually stunning, beautifully bonkers strangeness that creates a jewelled gallery of unforgettable images. The stories were selected by director Matteo Garrone (in a complete departure from his previous Gomorrah and Reality) from a 17th century collection of Neapolitan folk tales – the Pentamerone – compiled by the poet Giambattista Basile. The dialogue is in unexpectedly contemporary English.

A queen (Salma Hayek) longs for a child and she is told by a necromancer that if she eats the heart of a sea monster cooked by a virgin, she will conceive. Indeed she does, but the advice results in two babies, who, though born to different mothers, grow up as inseparable identical twins (Christian and Jonah Lees), and play Prince and the Pauper switches on her. In a neighbouring kingdom, a king (Toby Jones) becomes obsessed with nurturing a giant flea that grows to be as big as a hippo. To keep a promise related to the flea, he has to marry his only daughter (Bebe Cave in an impressive film debut) to an ogre, whom she tries to escape from. And in a third kingdom, a libidinous king (Vincent Cassell) hears a beautiful voice emanating from a hovel and lusts after its unseen owner (Hayley Carmichael). After she agrees to enter his bed in the dark, the next morning he sees that she is an old woman and throws her out. In the magic forest, her youthful looks are restored and so her equally aged sister (Shirley Henderson) disastrously tries to emulate her.

Each monarch lives in a strikingly situated castle, all of them real, yet amazingly unreal, locations in Italy. One hangs from the side of a mountain, another sits in octagonal isolation in an empty flat plain and one has a unique stone-walled maze. In some regions, the surrounding countryside is breathtakingly beautiful, with bridges over misty gorges in shots as perfectly composed as a painting. Forests and mossy banks are so green and undulating as to seem like living, breathing things. The ogre’s eerie is a bone-strewn cave on the side of a mountain so perpendicular that a tightrope can reach across a canyon to the nearest crag. Baroque court dress is as formally structured and richly colourful as that of playing card royalty. Renaissance jesters and circus performers abound.

At first, cutting between the three stories is disorientating, but it allows the theme of unreasoning and unreasonable desire that has unintended consequences to emerge and resonate. Tale of Tales is a unique vision that transports you into a magical, dangerous parallel fantasy world that’s grotesque, beautiful, extraordinary, strange, where familiar things are distorted and anything imaginable is possible.

Tale of Tales is released on 17 June 2016 in the UK and on demand.

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