Matteo Garrone stays true to Basile’s 17th century Pentamerone in this dark fantasy.
Tale of Tales was hailed as a masterpiece at the Festival of Cannes last year in 2015. Boasting an all-star cast, Matteo Garrone’s film is an opulent fantasy inspired by Giambattista Basile’s Il Pentamerone, a collection of original fairy tales from the 17th century.
The film stuck to to fairytale tradition in being a fully-fledged plethora of fantasy, dreams, emotion and ambition as well as confusion, and cruelty with a healthy dose of violence.
Salma Hayek plays the cold-hearted Queen of Longtrellis, who more than anything else craves a child. She gets her wish, at a cost: her husband, Michael C. Reilly dies at the hands of the sea monster whose heart, consumed, results in the Queen’s pregnancy and the birth of Prince Elias. But the heart of the sea monster is a potent thing, and the virgin maid who breathes in its vapours while cooking it for the Queen falls pregnant as well. The rub is that the maid also bears a child, Jonah, the twin of the Prince, the Queen’s son.
The Queen’s jealousy of the two brothers’ relationship leads to her driving Jonah away, and eventually being slain at the hand of her own son Elias as he protects Jonah from her when she transforms into a winged beast to kill him.
Toby Jones plays the bored King of Highhills, who one day finds a flea that amuses. He keeps the flea as a pet, feeding it first on his own blood and then on steak. The flea grows enormous but its lifespan does not grow to match. When it dies, the King has it flayed and displays its skin as part of a guessing game challenge to win the hand of his daughter, Violet, who wishes for a husband and an exciting life. Things do not go to plan when an ogre correctly guesses the skins origin and takes his prize back to his lair.
Things go further awry for Violet when a traveling family of entertainers rescues her, only to be violently slain by the ogre. Violet takes matters into her own hands, returning to Highhills with her husband’s head in her hands to take her father’s crown, who kneels before his daughter seemingly to abdicate in the face of the unexpected result of his game.
The Two Old Ladies
Perhaps the most tragic story of the three, Imma and Dora are two old women, one of whom is mistaken for a beautiful woman by the lusty King of Strongcliff. When the King wakes to find that Dora is not in fact a beautiful young woman he has her cast out of his bedroom window, where she is found and enchanted by a witch. Newly rejuvenated, the King makes Dora his wife – but there is another sister, Imma, who has not been so lucky and whose end is the most grisly of them all when she tries to imitate Dora, who has told her impetuously that she regained her youth by being flayed.
The end brings the three stories together as Violet is crowned Queen, with the King and Queen of Strongcliff and Elias attending. As the sun sets on a tightroper walker walking a flaming rope, Dora’s beauty begins to fade and she flees the castle as she turns back into her former self.
The beauty of Garrone’s film is not just in its visual splendour, but also in its representation of what we might call the original fairy tale (i.e. not Disneyfied). Why did any of this happen? The answer is that some came about through good intentions, some through bad; but the key is that some of the events just happened. Reward and punishment are not the tales’ intention; their intention is a story and that’s what we get whether we like it or not. All of the tales are fantastic, none of them are logical, and each story forcefully breaks through the barriers that we throw up to explain the world, to try and moralise. Real fairy tales should penetrate us, should remind us that we are not in control, that we can’t moralistically explain things as we would like. Garrone’s film does that with a deadly grace.