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The best fairytales are also the darkest, and doesn’t The Extraordinary Tale know it. This is indeed a most unusually-told tale about a bizarre love affair between a woman and a man who are stranded somewhere between real life and fairyland, and between the brightness of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and the darkness of Eraserhead.
Having bravely decided to make a tiny new world where the normal rules don’t apply, this fresh, deceptively slight first feature from Jose F. Ortuno and Laura Alvea goes ahead and pretty much succeeds: zany and unsettling by turns, it doubles as a darkly comic satire on contemporary relationships. Though not for all tastes, Tale has already been told at festivals and could appeal to thoughtful art house audiences seeking fresh voices.
Unnamed, gawky She (the strikingly clear-eyed Aida Ballman, debuting here) lives an isolated existence in a very peculiar house. Happy but lonely, she has typed out and sent 1,212 letters in 1,212 days with no reply until one day, she receives one from the like-minded He (Spain-based American Ken Appledorn).
After they meet, the idea of which throws her into a panic, she continues not to speak, still preferring to communicate in writing. They start to live together; he asks whether she’s happy, and her reply is a complex abstract disquisition on what happiness means. She gets pregnant, he gets a job; and the honeymoon is well and truly over, as things suddenly become very bleak indeed.
Despite some heavy themes, and though it demands some indulgence from the viewer in its sillier moments, the sometimes hilarious The Extraordinary Tale just flies by as a viewing experience. It is set entirely in a single room of her house, beautifully dressed down to the last detail by Mar Garcia Mejias to look in its more erotic moments of the photography of Russian Max Sauco, always with the fairy tale sense that a there’s a dark tangled forest just outside the front door. Lighting casts a honey glow over everything, and what looks like white flower blossom falls. Esther Vaquero also deserves mention for her eccentric wardrobe design, featuring layer upon layer of Victorian laciness.
Her German-inflected voiceover apart, the effervescent Ballman is basically doing a heightened, complex version of a circus clown. But the viewer never forgets that this is a lively, radiant young woman too, entirely innocent of the world, fragile and damaged by her relationship with her mother, who rather than tell her fairy stories as a child recited times tables to her — hence the title, and the resulting psychological damage.
Appledorn’s character is conceived a little more realistically, if only because he gets more lines as he tries to pull his companion in the direction of normal. The pair are clearly happiest when making joyous, abandoned love, which the film doesn’t balk at showing. Their offspring, sadly unidentified in the credits, is a mop of blonde curls on a chubby, angelic face – and memorably scary and expressive.
The Extraordinary Tale is just that, a tale, and there’s no point in trying to make any sense of it at all in terms of realism. It’s best thought of as a child’s take on some standard grown-up themes, picking apart the troubled tapestry of love 2013 style.
Thus people are alienated, fundamentally damaged in some way. They cannot communicate in person with each other on anything but the sexual level, preferring the safe detachment of social media (represented here by the clackety old typewriter into which she frenziedly taps). It’s also about intergenerational misunderstandings (her mother, played by Jane Arnold, lapses mid-sentence into incomprehensible dog-like noises), and about children, and work, and gender expectations.
Dialogue is sometimes over-the-top whimsical – “my mother is older than me” is not a great line, however you deliver it – and sometimes witty: “I learned how to make love, but not how to unmake it.” Hector Perez’s lively, catchy score underscores the generally wacky atmosphere. The use of Bob Roberts’ crackly “Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do” (1907), Belle Baker’s “Jubilee Blues” (1923) and a slice of death metal from Naetherna add to the general weirdness and help to suggest that the film is set both in time and beyond it – just like a fairytale.
Production: Acheron Films
Cast: Aida Ballman, Ken Appledorn, Mari Paz Sayago, Jane Arnold
Directors: Jose F. Ortuno, Laura Alvea
Producers: Sonia D. Roncero, Carlos Tunon
Director of photography: Fran Fernandez-Pardo
Music: Héctor Perez
Production designer: Mar Garcia Mejias
Editor: Carlos Crespo Arnold
Sound: Jose Tome
Wardrobe: Esther Vaquero
Sales: Acheron Films
No rating, 79 minutes
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Santa Barbara International Film Festival