'Tale of Tales', director: Matteo Garrone

Matteo Garrone’s first English language feature film 'Tale of Tales' is a portmanteau film that loosely weaves together three tales based on the 17th-century collection of folk tales compiled by Neapolitan poet Giambattista Basile. Translated into English in 1848 as 'The Story of Stories: Fun for the Little Ones', these tales, which included the earliest versions of fairytales such as 'Rapunzel’, 'Sleeping Beauty’ and 'Cinderella’, inspired authors such as the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson.

The three tales Garrone focuses on for his film are less well known: 'The Enchanted Doe’, 'The Flea’ and 'The Flayed Old Lady’. Each is set in one of three neighbouring kingdoms and all are female-focused. Each is startling in its capacity to capture contemporary obsessions, including a satire on today’s cosmetic surgery. In transposing the tales into cinematographic language Garrone and his collaborators aim to honour the spirit of Basile’s work if not the detail.

The film moves between its episodes, re-named 'The Queen’, 'The Flea’ and 'The Two Old Ladies’, at a leisurely pace, weaving an open texture that evokes the oral tradition in which all fairytales are rooted. There is no overarching narrative voice or any use of captions to help us make sense of the film’s fluid conversational structure. In this sense 'Tale of Tales' tells itself – a strategy that risks annoying some viewers. It is a baffling movie but it is also a darkly comic, strikingly imaginative and fantastically mad piece of cinema. It immerses us completely in its world – erotic, weird, internally consistent and creepily compelling as well as deadly serious.

The director’s earlier feature films, such as the ferocious 'Gomorrah' (2008) about the Naples Mafiosi, and 'Reality' (2012) about the modern yearning for celebrity, drew on real life and turned it into a kind of grotesque-magical pantomime. 'Tale of Tales' inverts this by starting with magical elements and giving them as much realism as possible. The common denominator throughout the film – besides the foibles of power – is desire that turns into obsession and has destructive consequences.

In the Kingdom of Selvascura, site of the first tale, 'The Queen’, a tormented, childless queen (Salma Hayak) follows the advice of a soothsayer to become pregnant: she must eat the heart of a sea dragon, cooked by a virgin and slain by her husband (John C Reilly). Meanwhile, in the adjoining Kingdom of Roccaforte, a corrupt sex-obsessed monarch (Vincent Cassel) is bewitched by the sweet singing of an aged crone, mistaking her for a young girl: 'The Two Old Ladies’ contains an astonishing performance by Shirley Henderson, recognisable only from her distinctive little girl voice, used to such chilling effect in the BBC series, 'Happy Valley’. From behind heavy make-up Henderson conveys the terrible desperation of an old woman craving youth and beauty.

In the third section, 'The Flea’, the King of Altomonte (Toby Jones) picks a flea off his arm and makes it his companion, nurturing it until it is the size of a Fiat Cinquecento and neglecting his young daughter Viola. This offhand maltreatment culminates in a grotesque act. The king makes his (now expired) monster flea the subject of a test for suitors seeking his daughter’s hand in marriage. As a result he marries her off to a terrible ogre who carries her off to his cave, rapes her and commits other heinous acts. Toby Jones’ comic timing and physical appearance are perfect for the role of the vain, deluded, melancholic king and flea-obsessive father.

Alongside the magic and mayhem in 'Tale of Tales' reside very human stories of loss, parental love and the maddening effect of desire. Hayek is especially compelling as the overprotective mother whose desire to keep her son to herself has terrible shape-shifting and fatal consequences. Garrone’s film is no crowd-pleaser like 'Game of Thrones', with which it has been compared. It is far too oddly off-kilter for that, infinitely more strange, enthralling and scary. Thankfully, the monsters in the film – flea and sea dragon – are physically created, life-sized and only digitally enhanced for touch-ups. 'Tale of Tales' is definitely not for kids.

What binds 'Tale of Tales' together is primarily its authentic locations. Castles in the south of Italy and Sicily figure prominently and repeatedly, including Sicily’s magical Gothic Donnafugata Castle, framed full on and shot from the middle distance. The film crew’s four months spent on location followed one simple rule: to find real locations that looked like they had been rebuilt in a studio. The medieval flavour of the costumes and Peter Suschitzky’s sumptuous photography heighten this hybrid sense of fantasy/reality.

Every frame of the film has the gilded look of colour plates found in old bound books of fairytales, forming images that linger in the mind long after leaving the cinema. Much credit for this is due to editor Marco Spoletini who also worked on 'Gomorrah'. One such striking image near the end shows Princess Violet, returned to her father’s castle wearing the drying blood of her murdered husband and the burdened look of her violent transition from girlhood into womanhood.

Paradoxically, it is the women in 'Tale of Tales' who fare best, more often than not through their spirited dealings with adversity. Anyone familiar with Angela Carter’s feminist re-imagining of folktales and fairytales in the likes of 'The Bloody Chamber' will agree with Sight and Sound’s suggestion that Garrone’s film is as near a translation of her work as there has ever been. It certainly shares in its violence, eroticism and scabrous sense of humour. When, early on, Salma Hayek’s queen prompts a black-coated sorcerer: 'Be less mysterious. Come to the point!’ she signals the way in which the film will be both offhand in its dealings with magic and light-footed in its handling of practicalities.

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Grounded in solid knowledge of the history and culture of the time, this novel, told from the point of view of different characters, has a luxurious feel to it, the images unrolling like a film, it floats a little above the hard-edged solidity of the world we know. Yet we experience the same feelings as the characters – amazement, delight, curiosity, anticipation, dread, loss and love. We may live in more pressured times with more technology, but we too have our thoughts and imaginations, we too find time to think, reflect, contemplate and daydream.

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