Drawing on the rich and until-now unexplored vein of Neapolitan fairy tales written by Giambattista Basile in the early 17th century, Tale of Tales combines the wildly imaginative world of kings, queens and ogres with the kind of lush production values for which Italian cinema was once famous. The result is a dreamy, fresh take on the kind of dark and gory yarns that have come down to us from the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault, only here they’re pleasingly new and unfamiliar. Starring Salma Hayek as a childless queen who is willing to do anything – absolutely anything – to conceive, it also features Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones and John C. Reilly as three troubled kings. An English-language cast spits out their lines in a variety of accents, but the real question is whether the Italo-French coproduction has enough name branding and modern appeal to leap wide. More likely it will hover in the Euro zone of a Beauty and the Beast, say, which also starred Cassel.
These fairy tales are certainly not aimed at children, though they will light the fire of many teens. Apart from a few moments of artistic eros — the first a shot of two court ladies consumed with passion for each other in a carriage; the second a post-orgy scene laced with naked, Felliniesque bodies — there is an underlying horror that is unnerving even for adults.
The compendium of interwoven stories is lensed with flair and wit by Matteo Garrone, the Italian director who followed up his icy and original mob exposé Gomorrah with the colorful but insipid dramedy Reality, about the evils of reality shows. While all three films have Naples as a common thread, the striking difference lies in how Tale of Tales sets aside the strong social themes of Garrone’s earlier work. On closer inspection, however, there is a great deal of sympathy for the common folk here, particularly in the story of a prince and his pauper-twin, and a heart-wrenching tale about two poor old sisters who are torn apart by the king’s lust and their own illusions. In contrast, there’s little good to be said about most of the royals, though they have their own twisted motivations which make them a bit more human, if not sympathetic.
Take the all-consuming maternal desire of Hayek’s lovely, pearl-covered queen, who sends her doting husband on a suicide mission to kill a sea monster. Out of love for her, he performs this feat in a wondrous diving suit out of Jules Verne. Hayek sternly focuses on the queen’s obsessive, one-track mind, which precludes any real emotional rapport. By ravenously consuming the monster’s giant heart, she instantly conceives and gives birth the very next day. But so does the virgin cook who inhales the cooking fumes, and their two albino sons (played as young men by the excellent Christian and Jonah Lees) feel bound by a fraternal bond stronger than blood. The magical undertones of the queen’s meeting with an eerie sorcerer and her unwise decision to follow his advice lead to a nasty but satisfying final metamorphosis.
More VFX are conjured up in the terrible, yet funny, account of how another king (the whimsical Jones), who lives with his beloved daughter (an ironic Bebe Cave) in the famous Castel del Monte in Apulia, becomes obsessed with a flea. He raises it to monstrous size on his own blood, until it eventually sparks a contest that will decide who is to marry his daughter. The grotesqueness of all this turns to horror when a fearsome ogre played by Guillaume Delaunay demands to take part, occasioning several edge-of-seat chase scenes, yet the way this tale plays with stock characters and conventions gives it a rather innocuous Into the Woods feeling.
This is not so in the third story, practically sandwiched between the other two by editor Marco Spoletini’s deft juggling. There is true horror – physical, metaphysical and psychological –in the chain of events set off by lecher-king Vincent Cassel’s smarmy courtship of a woman whose singing arouses him. Without glimpsing her face, he doesn’t realize Dora (Hayley Carmichael) is a gnarled old lady twisted by age and a lifetime of hard labor. A magical spell will turn the tables on the king, but will also affect Dora’s frail old sister Imma (a fine Shirley Henderson). The final scenes of Imma’s lonely madness dredge the depths of the human psyche and send a shiver down the spine.
Doused in luxuriant colors, elaborate costumes and fantasy décor, the scenes are wonderfully integrated into the Baroque architecture of Sicily, Apulia and Lazio, though some of the Escher-like castles clinging to hillsides could be CGI work. Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography ably creates a world of the imagination by blending astonishing (and real) Italian Baroque interiors with Dimitri Capuani’s outstanding production design and Massimo Cantini Parrini’s eccentric and amusing period costumes (some from the Tirelli collection). Underlining the poetic dimension of the film is a haunting original score by composer Alexandre Desplat.
Production companies: Archimede, Le Pacte in association with RAI Cinema, Recorded Pictures Company
Cast:Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones, John C. Reilly
Director: Matteo Garrone
Screenwriters: Edoardo Albinati, Ugo Chiti, Matteo Garrone , Massimo Gaudioso
Producers: Matteo Garrone, Anne-Laure Labadie, Jean Labadie, Jeremy Thomas
Executive producers: Alessio Lazzareschi, Peter Watson, Sheryl Crown, Nicki Hattingh, Anne Sheehan
Director of photography: Peter Suschitzky
Production designer: Dimitri Capuani
Costume designer: Massimo Cantini Parrini
Editor: Marco Spoletini
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Casting: Jina Jay
Sales: HanWay Films
No rating, 125 minutes