Tale of Tales
by Hope Madden
The concept of the fairy tale has been sterilized over the centuries, evolving mainly into capitalistic cautionary tales with overt morals meant to guide our youth toward a socially accepted line of thinking. But that’s not what they were always about. Fairy tales began as oral entertainment benefitting adults, their lurid magic often aimed at critiquing the powerful and finding absurd amusement in the helplessness of the majority.
Director Matteo Garrone returns to these early principles with his moody, atmospheric film based on the work of 16th Century Neapolitan poet Giambattista Basil. The yarns he spins are about narcissistic royals, unwise subjects, dark magic, and human brutality.
His braid of stories possesses a particularly dark and dreamy nature: Salma Hayak wants to have a baby; Vincent Cassel wants to bed a mysterious woman; Toby Jones wants to spend some alone-time with a giant flea.
Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, David Cronenberg’s regular collaborator, brings that elegant chill to certain frames, rarely but effectively punctuated with scenes boasting an especially flamboyant and lush look. The imagery meshes with another brilliant Alexandre Desplat score, aurally and visually supporting Garrone’s absurdist rethinking of the classic fairy tale structure.
Garrone’s cast is uniformly solid. Hayek embraces the haughty nature of her queen, but she allows just enough sympathy to creep into the characterization to create the necessary heartache as her story climaxes. John C. Reilly’s touching tenderness in a small role as a supportive spouse and king is especially wonderful.
Christian and Jonah Lees beguile as magical siblings, Franco Pistoni cuts a wondrously dark image as the film’s necromancer, and Cassel is characteristically excellent.
The real surprises in the film lie in Jones’s tale, though, which begins as something especially weird, then unravels into the darkest and most savage of the stories.
Certain moments lumber along, making the film feel longer than it is. Tale of Tales also comes up mildly lacking when compared to Garrone’s blisteringly brilliant Gomorrah. But the filmmaker deserves credit for bringing a delightful bit of madness, in character and filmmaking, back to the fairy tale.