Stars: Salma Hayek, Christian Lees, Jonah Lees, Vincent Cassel, Hayley Carmichael, Shirley Henderson, Toby Jones, Bebe Cave, Guillaume Delaunay, John C. Reilly | Written by Edoardo Albinati, Ugo Chiti, Matteo Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso | Directed by Matteo Garrone
Tale of Tales is a peculiar film and it’s difficult to know where to start with it. It has been directed by Matteo Garrone, who is best known for the Italian gangster film Gomorrah, a film so naturalistic in its approach, it almost felt like a documentary. Which makes Tale of Tales, a retelling of three archetypal fairystories with a surreal dream-like approach, a surprise straight out of leftfield.
The three interwoven stories take place in separate kingdoms. In the first, Salma Hayek’s queen uses dark magic to finally give her a son (Christian Lees), but becomes violently jealous when her progeny prefers the company of his mysterious doppelganger (Jonah Lees) to her. Vincent Cassel plays a lustful king who becomes besotted with an aged spinster (Hayley Carmichael) after hearing her sing but not seeing her in the second story. She and her sister (Shirley Henderson) try different approaches to get her into his bed with, uh, mixed results. Lastly, Toby Jones is another royal who becomes more interested in his giant pet flea (yes) than his daughter (Bebe Cave) and accidentally marries her off to an ogre (Guillaume Delaunay), with unfortunate consequences.
The film is a real mixed bag and my immediate response was one of confusion. Even several weeks later, I’m not sure whether I saw an entertaining, if niche, horror inflected fantasy or an unfocussed fever-dream or a little bit of both. The hardest thing to pin down is exactly who the film is for. Though the stories are child-friendly in their simplicity (and by that fact, perhaps too slight for adult tastes), the sexual content and violence is far too strong for younger viewers. All the nasty things that are implied in Grimm’s tales and the like are played out on screen and it doesn’t really hold much back. The shifts from childlike wonder to gratuitous violence are fairly confusing.
Having said that, there’s some elements to enjoy, most notably the production design. The film looks sumptuous and is also shot really well, so even when the stories drag or wallow a little too much in melodrama, the visuals are usually arresting enough to nullify these problems. I also really liked the creature design in an early sequence and the use of real locations (or at least very convincing sets) appealed.
I’m a big fan of Terry Gilliam and the film reminded me of both his best and worst aspects – there’s the visual inventiveness coupled with a fairly shambolic approach to narrative coherence. It was hard to know who we as an audience were supposed to be rooting for or empathising with. None of the characters are particularly likable or sympathetic with the possible exception of Bebe Cave’s Princess Violet. Ultimately, each story features at least one person being – often rather unfairly – punished for their own selfishness or short-sightedness, or for someone else’s selfishness or short-sightedness. Which is a rather pessimistic way to convey a message.
I can’t dismiss the film entirely however. There’s enough that’s intriguing or unusual in it to hold interest for at least the film’s duration. The cast is also fairly noteworthy too, with great turns from decent names. Hayek and Jones are their usual, likable selves. John C Reilly’s role is more of a cameo, but he’s still great and Vincent Cassel gives a pretty much peak Vincent Cassel performance. It’s a shame that ultimately it’s perhaps a little less than its constituent parts, both somewhat confused and at times confusing. Still, if anything in this review has piqued your curiosity, I would perhaps recommend with caution.
Tale of Tales opens in cinemas in the UK and Ireland on June 17th.