Technically Tale of Tales is over a year old – it was first screened in competition for the Palme d’Or at Cannes last May. But this Italian-French-British co-production only recently arrived on UK shores, and it’s set to be one of the most eccentric films released here this year.
Tale of Tales is Italian director Matteo Garrone’s first English-language film (something to bear in mind for those of you who can’t stand anything with subtitles); a horror fantasy featuring three interwoven stories described as ‘adult fairy tales’ – and trust me, these fairy tales certainly aren’t for children. While I found it relatively light on the ‘horror’ side (bear in mind, I’m accustomed to some pretty hardcore stuff), there is still enough sex, violence, adult themes and a genuinely unsettling tone in places to put off those who prefer a more PG experience.
The rest of you are likely to lap this up, providing fantasy is a genre you have at least a passing interest in. It opens with a queen desperate to conceive a child, by any means necessary… so when a necromancer shows up saying he knows a way, she pleads with her king to do the necessary. Loving her so, he grants her wish, setting off to kill a sea monster, seeking its heart, which must be cooked by a virgin and eaten by the queen; at which point she will fall pregnant immediately. But there will, of course, be a cost to her granted wish, as there always seems to be with offers sounding too good to be true.
This is one of three entertaining and somewhat fantastical scenarios featuring hapless royalty, each of which take place in the same world but are unique tales in their own right. They all have elements of tongue-in-cheek humour mixed in with serious thematic undertones; the sub-plot revolving around Toby Jones’ fascination with a flea, which then indirectly decides the fate of his princess daughter, is the prime example. There are moments when you’re not quite sure whether to laugh or feel horrified at what’s unfolding in front of you, but the film will certainly hold your attention for the entire journey either way.
As well as the aforementioned Jones (who undeniably steals the spotlight in most of his scenes), Vincent Cassel, Salma Hayek, Stacy Martin and John C. Reilly make up an enjoyable ensemble cast, while the beautiful sets and environments they inhabit are characters of their own. One could say if Lord of the Rings was set thousands of years ago, Tale of Tales feels like a slightly more modern reimagining of that kind of world, retaining a shadow of the beauty of its landscape but with all the bastardisations that come with the passing of time, when there are no more wars to be fought.
In reality these two fantasies are scarcely related outside of their genre; this film is based on the works of the Neapolitan poet Giambattista Basile, whose work reportedly also contained the earliest versions of other fairy tales such as Repunzel and Cinderella. Tale of Tales lacks the sheer scale of Tolkien’s epic (but then again, is there anything that doesn’t?); you’ll find no armies or battles here, and in terms of overall tone the two are quite different, but for imagination I found them comparable. On that note, one can’t help but see Guillermo del Toro’s influence in the creature and set design.
Its eccentric, irreverent tone may indeed be Tale of Tales’ greatest strength. I don’t recall seeing anything else quite like it. Essentially it is as much a black comedy as it is horror or fantasy. Unlike others who’ve tried to parody this kind of setting (2011’s Your Highness comes to mind), Tale of Tales does it with a unique style and fine attention to detail. Providing it resonates with you in the same way, this is likely to be one of your favourite films of 2016.
9 / 10