Being born in the beginning of the 1980s, a lot of the films I grew to love when I started watching them were some of the live action fantasy films. Immediately gravitating towards Rob Reiner’s A Princess Bride, I also found myself giving multiple rewatches of Ron Howard’s Willow and, for a little darker subject matter, Ridley Scott’s Legend. Earlier in my childhood, I watched a more fable driven film, Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, a story that dealt with a little more heavier and adult themes, something that I think had a massive bearing on my enjoyment of Matteo Garrone’s new twisted and very mature fairy tale, Tale of Tales. The whole thing really played to my early developed sensibilities.
Garrone is a filmmaker who had already made a considerable mark on me. In 2008, he released a film called Gomorrah, a brutal and unflinching look at a modern day crime family operating in Italy. The film would earn Garrone the Grand Jury Prize from Cannes that year and would get the prestigious Criterion Collection treatment, something that really means a lot to a cinephile like me. His next film Reality in 2012 would fly by me, out of my radar, but this new film Tale of Tales marks the Italian director’s first English language production and with notable international cast like Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel and Toby Jones. If Gomorrah hasn’t already put him on the map for international acclaim, this film will definitely turn some heads, even with it’s trailer, which gives almost nothing away of the story, just the gorgeous visuals.
Tale of Tales is broken up into three different stories. Our first story is about a queen (Hayek) who finds herself unable to conceive a child. Consulting a necromancer with the king (John C. Reilly), they go down a risky path that entails the killing of a sea monster to harvest it’s heart. The queen must then consume the heart after it has been cooked by a virgin. At the cost of her husband’s life, something the necromancer has foretold, the queen does this and gives an immaculate birth to her son Elias. The virgin who prepared the heart also gives the same immaculate birth to Elias’s twin, Jonah.
The second story follows another king (Toby Jones) and his young and musically gifted daughter Violet. Upon discovering a seemingly magical flea that has an ability to transport itself around without explanation, the king finds himself distractingly obsessed by the insect. He hides it away in his chambers, feeding it with steaks and blood, which causes it to grow and morph, much like the Kafka nightmare story, The Metamorphosis. After the flea dies, the king strips it of it’s skin and makes the odd decision of awarding whatever man who can identify where the skin came from his daughter’s hand in marriage. This proves to be a more horrifying move than keeping the flea in the first place.
The third story is about a lustful king (Vincent Cassel) who’s only goal is to bed every beautiful woman he sees. One day, he hears the beautiful singing of a hooded woman in the village below his castle and becomes obsessed with seducing her. Unknown to him, the woman in question is Dora, who is elderly and lives with her sister Imma, also in her advanced years. Cloaking herself, Dora goes to the king and sleeps with him, only for the king to discover her real appearance and, in disgust, has her thrown out the window to her death. Dora, wrapped in a bed sheet, ends up being caught in a tree and survives. She is then cut down by a mysterious witch who casts a spell, granting Dora back her youth, giving her a new lease on life.
The major striking thing about Matteo Garrone’s film Tale of Tales is that it is massively beautiful in every frame, making it the most visually compelling film that was, in recent years and a big reason, why I made the Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen comparison. Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, largely known for shooting most of David Cronenberg’s films but also the guy that lensed the greatest Star Wars movie ever, Empire Strikes Back, makes this Italian fable a gorgeous piece of art with each moment in this film a lavish mosaic of interesting imagery. Just seeing Salma Hayek in a stark white dining hall devouring a giant dragon heart with blood dripping from her mouth and hands was enough of a visual treat alone but it’s only one piece of thousands that occur throughout the movie.
The blending of all these stories with great acting make the film utterly satisfying on all levels but also give a subtle revulsion and disturbing nature, even when you find yourself darkly chuckling about some of the twisted humor within the film. Toby Jones and Salma Hayek are definitely the standouts of this film, with Jones exhibiting that odd love towards a giant flea, that is sort of endearing, especially when he starts cuddling with it. There is a lot that won’t appeal to your casual movie goer but those with some patience will really dig this.
My hope is that Garrone will receive the attention that he should have for Gomorrah. Yes, he did land a beautiful-looking Criterion but I have yet to have someone say “Oh man, have you seen Gomorrah?”. It’s a serious bummer. The good thing is now this film is playing in the gorgeous venue of the Vancity Theatre and in those comfortable seats you can now take in the Tale of Tales on the big screen like it really begs to be seen. With vibrant color shifts, ambitious fantasy sequences and a flowing story, I found myself really liking this film. I give it a four out of five.