Skip to main content

The equilibrium of the world must be maintained.

Tale of Tales
(2015)

(SPOILERS) A rich, absorbing, decidedly adult take on fairy tales that might put one in mind of Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves, but more for want of other similarly grown-up-skewed fare than direct tonal similarities. A selection of three cautionary stories based on the works of Giambattista Basile, which in turn influenced the more renowned likes of the Brothers Grimm, Matteo Garrone’s film features as its protagonists three different women in three different states of empowerment/disenfranchisement, but it might be a mistake to construe meaning overtly from that; this is more about the traps our desires set for us generally, rather than an express exploration of gender straightjackets.


The tales are only obliquely linked, through a funeral and a wedding in which the various royal characters gather, but Garrone ensures that, rather than a sequential portmanteau, the unfolding narratives keep pace with each other. At first sight, the second one we are introduced to, The Flea, appears to be the least enticing, concerning a king (Toby Jones, beautifully blinkered) who becomes devoted to a flea rather than his daughter Violet (Bebe Cave) whom he formerly doted on.


However, it quickly plunges into the progressively weirder, as the King begins feeding his tiny pet first his blood and then rare steaks; it grows to an enormous size, and thanks to design work that lends it a rather forlorn, cartoonish expression, the creature manages to be simultaneously repulsive and cute. Before it expires through being over-indulged. That the tale then takes a further distinctive left turn, as the daughter’s hand is offered to whoever can guess the provenance of the enormous flea skin hanging in the throne room (an ogre does), and we are thrown into the world of Violet’s captivity, rape, escape and recapture (the latter a grippingly shocking scene, as the caravan of travelling entertainers who rescued her are attacked and slain by the ogre), makes it the most compelling and unpredictable of the trio.


The least of the three, although it ends in suitably grisly fashion, The Two Old Women, finds a licentious king (Vincent Cassel) obsessed with the singing of who he believes to be a beautiful young maiden, but is in fact an aging crone, Dora (Hayley Carmichael), living with her similarly spinsterish sister, Imma (Shirley Henderson).


There’s commentary on the illusory nature of beauty here, albeit in a rather unfinessed manner; after being rejected by the disgusted monarch, Dora is transformed into a young woman (Stacy Martin) by a travelling witch, and thence gains the king’s hand in marriage. Most involving, however, is the tragic twist of poor, simple Imma, unable to adjust to her sister’s good fortune, having herself flayed on the understanding that it was this that brought Dora her youth and beauty. It’s here that the film finds its starkest contrast between the dream logic, magic wand waving of fairy tales and the sour reality of death and decay. Overall, though, the sequence is insufficiently commanding in and of itself, and additionally hampered by some terrible old age make-up that wouldn’t look out place on Billy Crystal’s Magical Max in The Princess Bride (it isn’t clear why Garrone went this route; it isn’t as if Carmichael also plays her younger self).


The first tale, The Queen, begins in full flight of fantasy, as the husband (John C Reilly) must slay a sea monster in order that his Queen (Salma Hayek) may give birth. She’s a stern, unsympathetic figure, failing even to give the King’s body a glance when the heart of the beast (which she must feed on) is presented to her, and refusing to allow her resulting son (Christian Lees) to spend time with his magical twin (Jonah Lees), born of the virgin who prepared said heart. It’s the relationship between the boys, well-played by the Lees brothers, that provides the pulse of this segment, and the Queen discovers to her cost that her unyielding will (“Violent desires such as yours can only be satisfied with violence”) will be directed back on her.


The moral aspect is most explicit here, but there’s an underlying thread throughout of selfish desires leading only to sadness, pain and loss, and perhaps too that, as the Necromancer advises, that “The equilibrium of the world must be maintained”. This isn’t a film interested in force-feeding a presiding theme, however (Cassel’s character goes ostensibly unpunished for his lusty predilections, save for losing a wife, which I’m sure he will get over); it is designed to work on a more instinctive, intuitive level, reflecting the original stories from which it derives.


Garrone’s achievement is extraordinary; you’d be hard-pressed to believe this only cost $14.5m. Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography is quite breath-taking, distinctive and evocative (he hitherto worked with Ken Russell, lensed The Empire Strikes Back and is Cronenberg’s regular director of photography). They take in a variety of Italian locations that blend seamlessly with stage sets (the aim was to evoke heraldic images and seventeenth century landscapes), passing from undersea realms to pristine banqueting halls (the Queen, in white, messily devours a bloody heart), to clifftop passes and forbidding forests. 


The use of special effects (aside from the aforementioned make-up) is entirely complementary, mixing CGI, prosthetics and animatronics to yield a tangible, eerily distinctive quality that sets them apart from standard Hollywood pixels. And the score, by Alexandre Desplat, a composer I find very variable, is quite magnificent, perfectly uniting the storylines with a dreamy, lyrical insistence that this is just how things are, must be, and ever were.


Garrone’s film could possibly have done with a bit of tightening, but the Desplat score actually works in favour of that loose approach. And if his eclectic casting recalls the kind of Europudding pictures of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s (Reilly doesn’t quite fit), with at variance acting styles and nationalities, the visual flavour and tonal unity of Tale of Tales makes it seem entirely appropriate.






Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

We’ve got the best ball and chain in the world. Your ass.

Wedlock (1991) (SPOILERS) The futuristic prison movie seemed possessed of a particular cachet around this time, quite possibly sparked by the grisly possibilities of hi-tech disincentives to escape. On that front, HBO TV movie Wedlock more than delivers its FX money shot. Elsewhere, it’s less sure of itself, rather fumbling when it exchanges prison tropes for fugitives-on-the-run ones.

I can’t be the worst. What about that hotdog one?

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) (SPOILERS) It would have been a merciful release, had the title card “ The End ”, flashing on screen a little before the ninety-minute mark, not been a false dawn. True, I would still have been unable to swab the bloody dildoes fight from my mind, but at least Everything Everywhere All at Once would have been short. Indeed, by the actual end I was put in mind of a line spoken by co-star James Wong in one of his most indelible roles: “ Now this really pisses me off to no end ”. Or to put it another way, Everything Everywhere All at Once rubbed me up the wrong which way quite a lot of most of the time.

Drank the red. Good for you.

Morbius (2022) (SPOILERS) Generic isn’t necessarily a slur. Not if, by implication, it’s suggestive of the kind of movie made twenty years ago, when the alternative is the kind of super-woke content Disney currently prioritises. Unfortunately, after a reasonable first hour, Morbius descends so resignedly into such unmoderated formula that you’re left with a too-clear image of Sony’s Spider-Verse when it lacks a larger-than-life performer (Tom Hardy, for example) at the centre of any given vehicle.

So, you’re telling me that NASA is going to kill the President of the United States with an earthquake?

Conspiracy Theory (1997) (SPOILERS) Mel Gibson’s official rehabilitation occurred with the announcement of 2016’s Oscar nominations, when Hacksaw Ridge garnered six nods, including Mel as director. Obviously, many refuse to be persuaded that there’s any legitimate atonement for the things someone says. They probably weren’t even convinced by Mel’s appearance in Daddy’s Home 2 , an act of abject obeisance if ever there was one. In other circles, though, Gibbo, or Mad Mel, is venerated as a saviour unsullied by the depraved Hollywood machine, one of the brave few who would not allow them to take his freedom. Or at least, his values. Of course, that’s frequently based on alleged comments he made, ones it’s highly likely he didn’t. But doesn’t that rather appeal to the premise of his 23-year-old star vehicle Conspiracy Theory , in which “ A good conspiracy theory is an unproveable one ”?

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

He doesn’t want to lead you. He just wants you to follow.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022) (SPOILERS) The general failing of the prequel concept is a fairly self-evident one; it’s spurred by the desire to cash in, rather than to tell a story. This is why so few prequels, in any form, are worth the viewer/reader/listener’s time, in and of themselves. At best, they tend to be something of a well-rehearsed fait accompli. In the movie medium, even when there is material that withstands closer inspection (the Star Wars prequels; The Hobbit , if you like), the execution ends up botched. With Fantastic Beasts , there was never a whiff of such lofty purpose, and each subsequent sequel to the first prequel has succeeded only in drawing attention to its prosaic function: keeping franchise flag flying, even at half-mast. Hence Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore , belatedly arriving after twice the envisaged gap between instalments and course-correcting none of the problems present in The Crimes of Grindelwald .