Director: Matteo Garrone
Screenplay: Edoardo Albinati; Ugo Chiti; Matteo Garrone; Massimo Gaudioso
Cast: Salma Hayek (as Queen of Longtrellis); Vincent Cassel (as King of Strongcliff); John C. Reilly (as King of Longtrellis); Toby Jones (as King of Highhills); Shirley Henderson (as Imma); Hayley Carmichael (as Dora); Bebe Cave (as Violet, Princess of Highhills); Christian Lees (as Elias, Prince of Longtrellis); Jonah Lees (as Jonah)
Synopsis: Based on the Pentamerone, a collection fairy tales by Giambattista Basile which include the origins of such stories like Rapunzel, a multi-national cast depicts three tales set within a single fantasy kingdom. 1) The attempt of the King and Queen of Longtrellis (Reilly and Hayek) to use a mythical fertility ritual which has lasting complications when the royal son Elias (Christian Lees) is born alongside the son of a maid Johan (Jonah Lee) who is like a brother to him, causing bad blood between Johan's existence and his mother. 2) The lustful King of Strongcliff (Cassel) who falls in love with a woman's singing voice, mistaking an elderly woman Dora (Carmichael) as a young maiden just from voice alone, something she and her sister Imma (Henderson) attempt to take advantage of. 3) The king of Highhills (Jones) whose obsession with cultivating a giant flea as a pet leads to disastrous consequences for his daughter Violet (Cave), shattering her fairy tale view of princesses being romanced and rescued by heroic knights.
Fairy tales have become more of an obsession of mine when I realise how deep their roots lay in storytelling, how they can be far more vivid and imaginative then I presumed them to be. As a kid I naturally grew up with fairy tales as many readers would have, but now I feel I can appreciate them even more as an adult. With this is it also becomes prevalent how they have been watered down especially when it comes to fantasy cinema - regardless of one's opinion of Tale of Tales, it's existence is justified and worthy by showing how clichéd Hollywood fantasy cinema can be in comparison, this film showing the flexibility fairy tales have especially as I can compare this to such examples I've from around the world, like from Russia, and see the structures sharing similar traits to the original tales. In Tale of Tales' case as well it's an emphasis that fairy tales are for adults as well as children, and it's not merely because of the blood and nudity either but in how these tales in their exaggerations depict humanity and its contradictions.It seemed such a strange tangent for Italian director Matteo Garrone to have made this film when it premiered at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival considering his reputation was sealed by Gomorrah (2008), an ultra realistic inspection of the Camorra crime syndicate based on a non-fiction novel. However when he's explicitly dealing with a work of Italian heritage, regardless of it being in English with a multi-national cast, the prevailing tone of stories dealing with the folly of mankind, especially the kings and queens of this tale causing grief out of their boredom, do find strange connective tissue with Gomorrah and the modern day even if the material is incredibly fantastical.
Comparisons could be made to Walerian Borowczyk's films such as Goto, Isle of Love (1968) but it also feels somewhat out of place as the fetishishtic tone of Borowczyk's work for the material world is not here. Instead Tale of Tales is an argument that realism in modern world cinema can work, winning me over when it's used right even for fantastical material. In this context, the natural light and real countryside locations sit perfectly with the sea monsters and ogres that exist within its world. Whilst I first pined for the aesthetic of sixties and seventies fantasy cinema, here the realism is both enticing and helped by the fact that the film willingly dives into its fantastical material, merely bringing a grubby reality to its scenes of peasant huts and castles which adds to its tone rather than detracts. A better comparison would be Alexander Sokurov's Faust (2011) especially as, while CGI is necessary, Tale of Tales gladly embraces practical effects, the unnerving nature of rubber and its tactile prescience felt here. How it was actually done I can't say, but the moment you witness a man in an old diver's suit in the prescience of a giant sea monster underwater its stunning; even if it's done with CGI the creature looks real and is accompanied on land by a real set prop that's incredible, a giant albino water serpent straight out of a Ray Harryhausen or Eastern European movie than a bland blockbuster. Despite only a fifteen certificate in the UK, this physical reality allows Tale of Tales to be explicit without because grimy in tone, a faithful translation of the kind of "uncensored" fairy tales of yore were flesh is depicted as matter of fact, acts of violence even against monsters is nasty, and there's no qualms in dealing with gristly concerns.
Helping the film is that none of the trio of stories is weaker than the other, the film cutting between them over a certain time frame. None of them end as you'd expect, another aspect of fairy tale lost in most modern film adaptations depicted here - that even if they're only a few pages long these tales can traverse a very long winding narrative which takes very unexpected directions, a tiny paragraph enough to bring in subplots and changes in tone that drastically change the story from its beginning just from the medium's economic use of pacing. Rather than the Joseph Cambell's heroes' journey theory, which has ruined modern cinema because screenplays over use its template, Tale of Tales for anyone wanting a decent comparison is closer to how role playing games can drastically change courses in its plotting to the end, allowing for unpredictability even if their endings are obvious from the beginning, tales here while short that take on numerous different events in their narratives which go against predictable storytelling. With this there is both a visceral nature to the material, the skin of a flea literally felt in a major plot point, and whilst it's not to the extremity of the film like Hard To Be A God (2013) in terms of absorption into its world, a logic exists in Tale of Tales helped by its sprawling plots where its felt fully, a medieval European of travelling carnival performers and fountains spurting from trees feeling more alive and detailed from the tangents.
Tale of Tales is a sumptuous work particularly in its use of subtle lighting. As much as the overblown or stylised sets of older fantasy films really appealed to my aesthetic views, the decision here makes a rock hard, positive argument for realism. As someone who was sceptical of how it is used in most modern cinema - flat, static rather than pulling one into a reality - the fact the fantasy content isn't out -of-place within this tone but gives it a special style is really surprising in a positive way. The fact the director is the same one who made Gomorrah stands out as, while this is elegant looking fantasy, there's plenty that has a blunt and matter-of-fact reality of mud and fields as Gomorrah was grey beach coast and urban slums. The rejuvenation of youth to the sight of an ogre's mountain lair have their reality to them without losing their magical properties, proof of how this aesthetic decision has succeeded. A lot of this is helped, as mentioned, because of the use of practical effects but it's also from the lavish nature of the work, from the music by Alexandre Despla to the carnivalesque tone to a lot of the world, where tightrope walkers and even a real performing bear gives it the appropriate sense of spectacle.
The more controversial aspect of the film, that it's in English with a largely non-Italian cast, doesn't detract either; remember, even the films of Federico Fellini were post-dubbed in the golden age of Italian cinema, dubbed in multiple languages, and had actors from all around the world in the casts, neither detracting from the films' inherent Italian natures or their artistry. Tale of Tales cannot be mistaken as anything other than a European film in tone if not Italian, the aesthetic swallowing an actor like John C. Reilly and turning him into a figure of this baroque fantasy even if his prescience might surprise people who only know him from comedies. Like The Lobster (2015), another 2015 Cannes Film Festival premiere where Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos made an English language film which also had John C. Reilly in it alongside a mainly English speaking cast, these films still hold their creators' idiosyncratic visions through-and-through. Only if a film's completely compromised can it be accused of being whitewashed of the director's and production crew's country of origins and personalities for the sake of an English-language commerciality, a film like Tale of Tales exhibiting its European origins proudly in its pace and tone.
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
Probably the one disappointment with Tale of Tales is that it's not as weird as fairy tales can be, but that will quickly diminish as time passes; it's like complaining that a beautiful Italian meal wasn't Chinese, utterly absurd as a critique even if the site's called Cinema of the Abstract. The three stories in the film do exhibit qualities of the unconventional that do exist in fairy tales though, which is something still to be happy about - the story with the two elderly sisters has the most unconventional content of the three including witch's breast milk and skin flaying - and seeing the film reveal in this type of content, it does cause me to stop and pause realising how sad it is most of the genre in terms of the mainstream is so completely bland in comparison.
Because of two things the fantasy genre are too obsessed over - ripping off The Lord of the Rings trilogy and replicating Joseph Cambell's heroes' journey theory - fantasy has really descended into such tedious places especially for a genre that, while capable of profound thought, should be able to relish the spectacle even in small, delicate stories. The biggest compliment to Tale of Tales is that, while only faintly like them in tone, it feels closer to the spirit of Pier Paolo Pasolini's Trilogy of Life - The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972) and Arabian Nights (1974) - in terms of adapting classic literature and letting their styles and tone be the filmic structure and mood of the final work. Even as high fantasy, Tale of Tales has an earthly quality, both capable of being nasty and hilarious, the later especially in seeing Toby Jones obsess over a flea like a pet dog, that ditches the generic orcs and battles between armies in favour of more openly fantastical and interesting stories.
Abstract Spectrum: Fantastique/Grotesque
Abstract Tropes: High Fantasy; Monsters; Fairy Tale; Sexuality; Giant Insects; Carnival Motifs
A delight to have seen, more so as it came from the least expected of places; to imagine that the director of Gomorrah decided, with a film called Reality (2012) in-between to add irony to the career choice, to jump into high fantasy and earnestly is such a surprise. The grim realism of Gomorrah's criminal narrative is so alien to this, thought there are clear connections to suggest why Matteo Garrone made Tale of Tales, that the change is wonderful just for how unpredictable Garrone now is. When one pines for directors to be unpredictable, an act like this kind of change of filmic tone is greatly appreciated and leads as much to building a fanbase as becoming an auteur with clear trademarks does. That the film is a success is something that makes this pleasant surprise justifiable.