Fairy tales were meant to be oral stories. Translating the tangents of old women in far-flung villages (whose chips on their shoulders about, say, their brother’s failed shipping business might inspire long asides about the shipping industry) into written texts doesn’t always make for the most linear, easy read. In an oral story, however, that stuff is fun and weird and unpredictable. The story itself gets to mutate just like the characters, depending on who tells it, and that’s where the magic lies. The Tuscan proverb Italo Calvino quoted in his thorough study Italian Folktales reads, “The tale is not beautiful if nothing is added to it.” In director Matteo Garrone’s vision of Giambattista Basile’s Neapolitan classics, Tale of Tales, there is certainly much added.
First off, who could resist the extravagant period costuming and set pieces lit to mimic the works of Italian Baroque painters? But Garrone also works in surrealist elements for a more contemporary feel. John C. Reilly as the hero King of Longtrellis killing a serpent for his wife has the look of a dusty Wes Anderson scene and the sound design of a monster movie. Salma Hayek as the Queen of Longtrellis, in a stark white room, methodically devouring the serpent's giant heart, could be a Marina Abramovic performance piece.
As for that organ she’s eating: It’s supposed to make the barren Queen immediately pregnant. We’re told there are equal and opposite consequences, but in true fairy-tale fashion, there’s zero indication that a virgin servant girl will then give birth to the Queen’s son’s albino twin brother.
The story spirals out from there, intertwining the trials of the pasty prince and his pauper brother with those of two vaguely neighboring kingdoms, one of which holds a sex-crazed king (Vincent Cassel) terrified of old women and being alone. The king mistakes a hag (Hayley Carmichael) for a pretty young thing, and cringe-worthy courtship scenes follow, including some “skin handling” — lots and lots of excess, flappy human skin being touched, folded and flayed — on par with Cronenbergian body horror. The hag and her sister (Shirley Henderson) are so obsessed with the king’s expensive gifts that it’s clear the case of mistaken identity can only lead to disaster. And then another disaster, followed by another, none of them remotely predictable.
For all the great performances in this ensemble cast, Toby Jones and his young co-star Bebe Cave stand out for their expressive, physical acting. Imagine the King of Hearts from Disney’s animated Alice in Wonderland, only the Queen of Hearts is dead, and she’s left behind her pouty daughter. In the third kingdom, Jones plays a man so focused on the care of his secret, giant pet flea that he can barely acknowledge his princess daughter’s presence in the castle. He conveys the vulnerability of the fool with a genuine clowning talent and a seemingly elastic face, while Cave’s wide blue eyes do her talking.
As this royal family butts heads and goes on separate paths to fight their own demons, they become the most transformative characters in the film. The princess endures a particularly heart-wrenching odyssey as she’s held captive on a mountainside by her ogre husband. Cave plays the absurd situation artfully, a pendulum of emotion swinging back and forth until the story’s satisfying end.
At times, the action is truly thrilling, a marriage of practical effects and the mentality that anything can happen. The sets seem purposefully theatrical, the set pieces like lavish stage shows, scary in the same ways early Jim Henson works such as The Storyteller or The Labyrinth were scary, but an inch further over the line into gruesome. The wry sense of humor of Garrone and the source material, where nobody is all good or evil, makes everyone a target for some comic comeuppance.
All this is to say, Tale of Tales has the makings of a cult classic, but not exactly a box office success. Mainstream adaptations of fairy tales are generally manipulated to fit Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” as if it’s the only way to write a story (spoiler: The Little Mermaid kills herself in the original), but Jan Švankmajer’s trippy adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland — Alice — proves a fairy tale can diverge from the path and be just as, if not more, thrilling. It’s worth noting that the fairy tales in Garrone’s film were all originally created by women but recorded and added to by men, which may or may not play into the story arcs, which have been classified as variations of the Feminine Journey, i.e. a slow self-destruction of the protagonist, and sometimes, if they’re lucky, rebirth. The characters on the Feminine Journey usually realize they don’t fit into their old world, and this type of arc doesn’t lend itself to moral platitudes: Don’t expect many lessons here.
Do expect, however, to be dazzled by lush cinematography, top-notch acting and some shocking turns. Tale of Tales is the most faithful and creatively rendered fairy tale onscreen to date, bizarrely satisfying and totally worth a patient, focused viewing.