Royalty gets royally mocked in Matteo Garrone's twisted, surrealist anthology, Tale of Tales
Tale of Tales IFC Films
Director: Matteo Garrone
Screenplay: Edoardo Albinati, Ugo Chiti, Matteo Garrone and Massimo Gaudiso, based on the collection of stories by Giambattista Basile
Starring: Vincent Cassel, Hayley Carmichael, Salma Hayek, Toby Jones, Shirley Henderson, Bebe Cave, Jonah Lees, Christian Lees, Stacy Martin, Guillaume Delaunay and John C. Reilly
Not rated / 2 hours,13 minutes
(out of four)
Not that myths and fairy tales generally go easy on royalty figures, but there does seem to be an especially pronounced sense of schadenfreude in Tale of Tales, Matteo Garrone's surreal, fantastical sendup of the wants and wishes of the rich and powerful.
Based on Giambattista Basile's Pentamerone, the film tells three loosely linked narratives - they take place within three separate but adjacent kingdoms - that are as familiar in their most basic elements as they are peculiar in their tone and perverse in their psychology. We know the scenarios already - Kill a dragon. Sacrifice a virgin. Solve an impossible test. Win a princess. Rescue a princess. Cast a spell. Transform yourself from an old hag into a beautiful woman. Enchant a king. - but rarely see them with quite the warped spirit in which they were intended centuries ago, and which the filmmakers gleefully underscore.
The kings and queens, princes and princesses we're used to seeing in stories like this are often brought down by hubris or entitlement, and that's certainly the case here - but usually it's all in service of a message or lesson. Here, the lessons are implicit, but kind of beside the point. Instead, Garrone is putting the rich and spoiled and entitled on display, to be seen as utter absurdities rather than tragic victims of pride. The stories he's telling are carefully chosen, as they're all about characters trying to bend reality to their will just because they have the power to do so - through wishes and dreams and potions alike. Garrone takes palpable pleasure in making mockeries of them all, in seeing their best laid plans go to absolute hell.
Every wish is, in effect, the universe's command; but once those wishes are set in motion, they are out of the wishers' control. Their desires are turned on their head. When the royals in Tale of Tales want something, they get it - but it's a misshapen version of it, a cruel deformity. With the world at their feet, they become the butt of every joke, the target of every karmic twist of fate.
Which is not to say that non-royals come out of this all unscathed, or somehow exalted. Far from it. Directly, they are often the victims of their rulers' misbehavior. But they're merely the collateral damage in a more elaborate game played by sadistic gods.
It's only fitting that the opening tale involves the desire to have a child, as the monarchs throughout the movie are, behaviorally, little more than children themselves. You can see it in the way Garrone and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky shoot the Queen of Longtrellis (Salma Hayek) as she eats the heart of a sea dragon - alone at the table and in the shot, chowing down with her bare hands, her face smeared with blood. The space at the top and sides of the frame - not to mention the height of the table, which is practically up to her armpits, with her elbows propping her up - emphasize just how childlike she looks, like an infant eating her first birthday cake. (The dragon heart, by the way, is one of the conditions for making the Queen fertile. According to her trusty necromancer, she must eat the heart of a dragon that has been cooked by a virgin.)
You can see it in the behavior of the King of Highhills (Toby Jones), who titters with childish delight at the discovery of a new pet, a flea that gradually transforms into a giant flea, and which the King keeps hidden in secret underneath his bed like a 12-year-old boy hiding Playboy magazines, and with which he similarly spends entirely too much time, the door perpetually locked. Even when the flea dies, he finds a way to turn that tragedy into an adolescent, self-satisfied joke - he skins the giant flea and declares that whomever can identify what animal the skin came from will win his daughter's hand in marriage. Because surely no one would ever guess "flea." Obviously.
And then there's the King of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel), who develops a boyish infatuation with the singing voice of a local woman, who turns out to be - unbeknownst to him - a wrinkly old spinster named Dora (Hayley Carmichael) who lives a hermetic life with her sister Imma (Shirley Henderson). Undeterred by her initialy refusals, he insists on having her.
You can only imagine what the gods have in store for him once she acquiesces. (And as it turns out, his punishment is twofold.) And how could the Queen have known that her miracle child would be born simultaneously with an identical twin (courtesy of the virgin), who would be the recipient of all the affection she expected for herself? And the King - well, he presented a puzzle with a Rumplestiltskin-like degree of difficulty ... never conceiving that a hideous ogre would be able to recognize the flea's scent immediately, and proceed to carry off the princess, his honestly-won prize.
And just to make the concept of royalty and power even more toxic, the film gives Dora the chance to better her life and circumstances, as she's saved by a witch, who breastfeeds her back to health and transforms Dora into a young, beautiful woman (played by Stacy Martin). And yet she uses the opportunity to pursue the very same, cruel king who left her elderly self for dead, and proceeds to get exactly what's coming to her.
The macabre and surreal details in Tale of Tales are virtually unending. Garrone and his co-writers Edoardo Albinati, Ugo Chiti and Massimo Gaudisoa have given us a delectable, if wildly uneven, collection of warped moral fables and amusingly vicious attacks on figures of power, their gifted or inherited authority status every bit as absurd as their greedy and gluttonous behavior.