Tale of Tales, 2015.
Directed by Matteo Garrone.
Starring Salma Hayek, John C. Reilly, Toby Jones and Vincent Cassel.
From the bitter quest of the Queen of Longtrellis, to two mysterious sisters who provoke the passion of a king, to the King of Highhills obsessed with a giant Flea, these tales are inspired by the fairytales by Giambattista Basile.
Matteo Garrone’s previous feature Reality seemed to find the Italian divulging his dreams of the surreal within the social-realism of modern Italy. With Tale of Tales – based upon the poet and scholar Giambattista Basile’s folk myths of the 16th century-Garrone has plunged head first into a murky pool chock-full of the surreal, heady erotica and fetishistic fancy dress.
It brought to mind Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain or Pasolini’s Arabian Nights, at times towards the vulgarity of Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, even reaching towards the nonsensical babblings of Monty Python’s Holy Grail. It’s baffling, infuriating and maddeningly erotic.
The first of three stories finds John C. Reilly and Selma Hayek playing king and queen, unable to conceive an heir. A necromancer – a supremely creepy Franco Pistoni – tells them that in order to conceive, the heart of a sea monster must be cooked by a virginal servant with which must be consumed by Hayek’s queen. This results in both the queen and the servant giving birth to albino twins, neither of which are allowed to interact.
In the parallel kingdom of Roccaforte, Vincent Cassel – at his absolute sleaziest-plays a corrupt nymphomaniac monarch who finds himself captivated by the voice of an aged witch with whom he mistakes for someone far younger. Having agreed to sleep with him only under the pretense he is to not see her, the next morning, he pulls the curtains, and in doing so, realises her as a hag.
The third, and most impressive, finds Toby Jones at his very best, picking a flea off his arm and nurturing it until it grows to be the size of a bear. Too enamored by the flea to wed his daughter off to a prince, he decides to use the hide of the flea to find the best suitor, ultimately resulting in her wedding an ogre.
It’s excessive, over-wrought and manically inconsistent, yet this all lends to its ramshackle charm. Moments of intense vulgarity – Shirley Henderson’s hag demanding to “be fileted”-play hand in hand with moments of comedy at its most broad – Toby Jones attempting to pick a flea off his arm is played tragically funny.
Amidst Hollywood’s enamor with computer imagery, there’s an endless charm to Tale of Tales reliance on real world locations where grand European castles impose themselves amongst CGI backdrops. The titular sea monster looks unsettlingly real, while it’s heart (supposedly filled with pasta, jelly and any number of other rather grim sounding food substitutes) is a joyously vulgar creation.
Subtlety is rare; it’s a garish affair of bad-taste comedy and moral vulgarity, as if Garrone finds pleasure amongst the displeasure of others. With it being deliberately uncompromising, it may struggle to find its audience, which would ultimately be a great shame. It demands to be watched and re-watched. Almost 30 years back, Peter Falk read The Prince Bride to a baby-faced Fred Savage, Tale of Tales, manic it may be, it has all the feel of Falk struggling to recite Game of Thrones.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★