Tale of Tales review – bawdy and fantastical

It may be inspired by 17th-century Italian fairytales, but Matteo Garrone’s dreamlike circus of sex, violence and magic is definitely not one for the children

Toby Jones as the King of Highhills
Toby Jones as the King of Highhills reminds us he cut his teeth studying physical theatre at the Lecoq school.
Toby Jones as the King of Highhills reminds us he cut his teeth studying physical theatre at the Lecoq school.
Mark Kermode
, Observer film critic

Last modified on Thu 19 Apr 2018 10.57 EDT

This lustily fantastical English-language feature from the Italian writer-director Matteo Garrone is described on screen as being “loosely based on The Tale of Tales by Giambattista Basile”, the Neapolitan writer whose 17th-century fairytales inspired Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and more. The subtitle for Basile’s most celebrated work was Entertainment for Little Ones, although the BBFC’s description of Garrone’s 15-rated film (“strong sex, violence and gory images”) makes it clear that this is definitely not for minors. Bawdy romping, meaty heart-munching and toothy creature-feature fare are all on the menu in this sprawling collage of fables that owes as much to David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch as to Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves.

There are certainly traces of both William Burroughs’s surreal hallucinations and Angela Carter’s psychoanalytic feminism in the fleshy screenplay, co-written with Edoardo Albinati, Ugo Chiti and Massimo Gaudioso. Visually, Garrone cites Goya, Fellini and Mario Bava as key inspirations, in addition to which I spied traces of the magical realism of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, the skin-peeling horror of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, and the ambiguous monsters of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, with just a touch of the bug-like weirdness of Vincenzo Natali’s Splice. Blimey.

Beginning with the tale of the childless Queen of Longtrellis (Salma Hayek) who would rather lose her husband to a sea monster than go without offspring – “a violent desire such as yours can only be satisfied with violence…” – Tale of Tales intertwines three rites of passage narratives that collectively portray female self-determination through steely (and frequently tragic) resolve. In one strand, Shirley Henderson’s ageing Imma is separated from her beloved sister when Vincent Cassel’s randy King of Strongcliff (the wolf who claws at the door of their “lowly pigsty”) becomes besotted with a beautiful voice. What follows may be read as a very modern parable about the tyranny of youth and the savagery of cosmetic surgery. But it is also a timeless portrayal of the bonds of sisterly love, a theme amplified by both the defiance and pathos of Henderson’s wonderful performance.

The strongest thread, however, follows the abandonment of the young princess Violet (Bebe Cave) by her vain and foolish father, superbly played by the mercurial Toby Jones. A sequence in which his King of Highhills is distracted from his daughter’s adoring song by the infatuating antics of a leaping flea has the wordlessly expressive comedy of Chaplin or Keaton, a symphony of silent film magic that reminds us that Jones cut his teeth studying physical theatre and clowning at the Lecoq school in Paris.

Garrone describes Basile’s tales as epitomising “that blend between the real and fantastic which has always characterised my artistic endeavours”, a statement that may surprise fans of the director’s most celebrated work, Gomorrah, an unflinchingly “realist” portrait of Neapolitan crime and corruption. Yet as 2012’s Reality demonstrated, there has long been an operatic quality to Garrone’s work, and in Tale of Tales we find outlandish flights of folklore fancy rooted in the terra firma of the tangible world. Astonishing locations lay the foundations, from Apulia’s octagonal Castel del Monte to the otherworldly wonders of Sicily’s Alcantara gorge – real settings that evoke unreal, theatrical environments.

As for the creature effects, the decision to use computer graphics merely to enhance rather than replace old-fashioned puppetry and animatronics pays down-to-earth dividends. Here be dragons that one can believe in, creatures whose forms seem physical rather than digital, particularly when viewed through the underwater fog of a diver’s helmet, like exotic escapees from a movie by Georges Méliès or Guy Maddin.

Salma Hayek
Salma Hayek... cinematographer Peter Suschitzky’s widescreen frame gorges itself on a tapestry of bold colours.

Having worked with Cronenberg on films as diverse as Naked Lunch and eXistenZ, the cinematographer Peter Suschitzky is well versed in conjuring realistic dreamscapes, and his widescreen frame gorges itself on a tapestry of bold colours (bloody reds, verdant greens, stark whites) and architectural intrigues. Always on the move, the camera tracks, circles and shadows its protagonists, from the opening shot, which finds jugglers and jesters limbering up in a dusty street, to a hunt through a maze (later echoed in a ravine), which recalls the circling madness of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Meanwhile, Alexandre Desplat’s score counterposes a recurrent Edward Scissorhands-style nursery rhyme theme with more sombre strains of dread, moving back and forth between music-box tinklings and the booming alarums of war.

Although also currently available via on demand TV, Tale of Tales really needs to be seen on the big screen. Having watched it both ways, I can attest that much devilish detail is missed on home viewing. This is a theatrical piece: a three-ring circus of a movie for which front row seats are highly recommended.

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