Once upon a time, fairytales were folk tales. Then they became children’s stories, were made into Disney cartoons and now star Angelina Jolie or Charlize Theron. Into the woods (and in competition at the Cannes Film Festival) strides Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales (2015), an anthology of 17th century folk tales by Giambattista Basile told with a verve and commitment to the strange. Best known for his neo-neo-realism with such films as the Naples based gangland drama Gomorrah (which showed in the Un Certain Regard sidebar in 2008) and Reality, which showed in competition in 2012, Tale of Tales is Garrone’s first feature in English, but in a way the film is in an older language.
Three neighbouring kingdoms are ruled by three troubled monarchs. A Queen (Salma Hayek) will do anything to have a child – no matter what devil’s bargain she must strike or what her doting king (John C. Reilly) must sacrifice. A lecherous king – Vincent Cassel luxuriantly robed in his best self-parody – is unsated by his own bloated appetites and in pursuit of an unobtainable and unseen village beauty whose singing enraptures him. The final king (Toby Jones) dotes on his daughter but finds himself distracted by a new insect pet which grows to gigantic Kafkaesque proportions. This is a magical world of transformations, witches, ogres, princesses, acrobats and clowns, but there is very little chance of a happily ever after and Garrone consistently eschews both a Disneyfied sentiment and a more complex and darker post-modern retelling.
In fact, in stark contrast to such Hollywood re-imaginings as Into the Woods, Snow White and the Huntsman and Maleficent, Garrone takes the stories at their original meaning. His film is neither post-modern nor even modern. It’s medieval. With starkly enigmatic, but beautifully wrought and filigree imagery, with a dark cutting humour which is bleak rather than ironic, Garrone is not interested in touching our hearts or giving us a comfortable moral. Rather his fables scrape bare human weakness and reveal the cruelty and the cost that must be paid. Consequences are laid out by a grim reaper like figure, who turns up at the court assuring the royals that a price must be paid. Deals are made with eyes open and the universe is an unforgiving place. Just as Garrone found inspiration in De Sica and Fellini for the underrated Reality, so in Tale of Tales, the Pasolini of The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron seems a fitting model. As with Pasolini, so Garrone glancingly re-appropriates short form literature, to provide an intertwining narrative that is cruel hopefully to be kind, cutting short ambition and declaring all is vanity, vanity, vanity.
There is also a wit here which sees the most outrageous allegory brought down to earth. The presence of recognisable Hollywood stars such as Reilly, albeit fleeting, indicates a hankering for a mainstream audience. But in reality (whatever that is) Garrone’s film is defiantly odd, consistently striking and often luminous. The score by the prolific Alexandre Desplat pounds ominously through the film like the knocking of fate on the castle door and the photography by Peter Suschitzky manages to capture the intimacy of lived reality in the nowhere of a fabled time as well as some of the most luscious natural locations. The castles, the stone labyrinth and the green woods are gorgeously portrayed. Mythical beasts might be conquered and women thrown from windows, but something ultimately survives and Garrone’s Tale of Tales has images which live on long after the closing credits have run.