If there’s one thing I can say with some confidence about Tale of Tales, it’s this: you’ve probably never seen anything quite like it before.
Following its premiere at Cannes last year, Matteo Garrone’s fairy tale collection finally arrives in UK cinemas this week. Garrone takes as his inspiration not the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson, but the work of Giambattista Basile, an Italian writer who predates them all with his collection of 50 fairy tales, first published in the seventeenth century.
Faced with that daunting body of work, Garrone and his fellow screenwriters whittled it down to a selection of three. The first stars Salma Hayek and John C. Reilly as a king and queen willing to go to any lengths to have a child; the second Vincent Cassel as a lusty king who falls for one of his sweet-voiced subjects; the third Toby Jones as a ruler so distracted by a monstrous, magical flea that he pays little heed to how he marries off his daughter, played by Bebe Cave.
Rather than telling each tale one after another, Garrone interweaves them, the collective monarchs crossing paths at two pivotal moments. This is a world of sea dragons and ogres, necromancers and witches, but the emphasis is firmly on the humans at the heart of it. To that end Tale of Tales relies heavily on practical effects, grounding even its most fantastical moments in the mud and grime. Meanwhile sumptuous Baroque costuming and extraordinary Italian castles seem that they must be almost as fictitious as the stories around them, Garrone drawing on just enough history to preserve a sense of wonder.
The tales themselves are suitably twisted, the sort of grimy fare that Disney has long since tried to remove from the public imagination, but Tale of Tales never strives for gore or spectacle. Violence, when it comes, feels earned and impactful, and even the film’s moments of horror earn their impact from their startling plausibility.
And what horror they possess. The film’s most immediate, stomach-churning moment sees Salma Hayek ripping into into a bloody, beating heart, stripped of all regalia in her animal desperation. Then there’s Toby Jones gleefully playing with a flea the size of a bloodhound; a frenzied fight in a darkened meat locker, torchlight blocked by the dangling carcasses; the agonizing, heart-rending cry of a woman voluntarily being flayed alive. These moments and more lend the film an unsettling edge only partly offset by the fact that it also features a dancing, bugling hula bear.
The three tales here are also strikingly modern, despite their obvious age. At the heart of each is a driven woman, grappling with still-relevant crises such as the societal obsession with youth and beauty, or striving for independence from a father. It occasionally takes reminding that these tales are four hundred years old, not written by Garrone for the purpose, and it’s clear that Basile’s original book is overdue rediscovery.
What remains most fascinating about Tale of Tales, lingering long after the credits, is perhaps simply that someone has found such fresh and fertile ground within the somewhat tired fantasy territory. Arriving just two weeks after the tired, soulless sheen of Warcraft, this is an all-too-welcome reminder that the fantastical extends far beyond the long shadow of Tolkien, that grit and bombast and epic warfare are not all there is when the historical and the magical intertwine. Tale of Tales finds the weird and the sublime in the crevices of the world, and perhaps the most memorable vision of the fantastical since Guillermo del Toro did the same in Pan’s Labyrinth.
Words by Dominic Preston