Tale of Tales has a red, bloody heart that would keep beating even if ripped out. It bypasses the lace clad ‘fairy’ in ‘fairy tale’ and takes us for a wilderness trek through the dark forest that is the natural home of folk tales collected by the Grimm Brothers and the less well known Giambattista Basile.
Director Matteo Garrone [pictured, centre] combines several of Basile’s stories, to dance between the plight of three royal families: Vincent Cassel’s lecherous, dissolute king, Salma Hayek’s desperately broody queen and Toby Jones as a foolish geek of a monarch, who neglects his daughter in favour of a pet flea.
A flea. You won’t get far in this film if you don’t roll with some of the more fantastical plot devices. The characters in folk tales are refreshingly direct in taking action to get what they want. The object of Vincent Cassel’s affections for instance, a haggard old woman who beguiles the king with just her beautiful voice, forgoes spa treatments for an extreme version of exfoliation – asking the townsfolk to flay her alive.
The colour red stains this film regularly – blood is never far from the surface, but often counterbalanced by a humour that acknowledges the extremes of love and death that drive these morality tales. It’s curious then how ‘Tale of Tales’ never fully drags us into its fierce and beautiful world. Weaving together separate tales means it’s inevitably a bit episodic, but the direction doesn’t mine deep enough moments of action and emotion to give satisfying landmarks in what becomes a rather meandering quest through these kingdoms.
A director like Guillermo Del Toro who similarly has one foot in ‘art’ and popular cinema managed this feat with spectacular results in ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’, but here the monsters project far less threat and because of it, give the actors less to react against.
Let’s not cast aside ‘Tale of Tales’ like an unworthy suitor for a princess though – come to its bracing mix of pastoral beauty, artful design, wit and gore like you’ve stepped into a painting. Soak up the rich passages of colour and light in between the characters that are perhaps a little too sparsely placed across the composition.