With the likes of Snow White and the Huntsman, Maleficent, and Alice in Wonderland, films based on fairy tales have been thematically growing up and darkening in Hollywood. Or more accurately, they have been enjoying reboots that connect them with their originally murky roots in new, refreshingly mature ways. Italian director Matteo Garrone’s first English language film Tale of Tales – based on the 17th Century fairy tales of the Neapolitan writer Giambattista Basile – joins this lot (alongside the recent The Huntsman: Winter’s War) of fairy tales for adults as a non-Hollywood alternate, telling an anthology of three distinct, twisted and fantastical stories set in different corners of a curious land with three Kingdoms. It occasionally stalls in its flow and shows its imperfect seams that bind its tales, but Tale of Tales is nonetheless mighty fun (not in the naive “Disney” ways you might expect), irresistibly lush and playfully unsterile with its moody queens, innocent virgins, womanizing kings and grotesque beasts that live in grandly gothic and mostly hostile settings.
The first tale follows a gloomy, infertile Queen (Salma Hayek) whose only wish is to bare a child. Advised by an eerie old man to eat the heart of a sea monster cooked by a virgin, she doesn’t hesitate to take on the challenge and neither does the King (John C. Reilly), who goes on an underwater hunt for it. The prophecy comes true, but at a cost. The virgin who cooks the heart also delivers a baby: a twin brother to the Queen’s son. Joined at the hip from birth but separated by their social classes through the years, the story evolves to examine the boys’ suffering once the cast system splits up their inseparable spirits. The second story finds two aging sisters (Shirley Henderson and Hayley Carmichael) –with extremely wrinkly skin and frail bodies- living in severe poverty. One of them attracts the fancy of the Kingdom’s notoriously womanizing king (Vincent Cassel) with her lovely singing and unknowingly convinces him that her looks are a match for her beautiful voice. When one day she magically assumes youth and physical beauty (and turns into Stacy Martin) with the help of a witch, she sets off deep trouble in the kingdom and arouses the jealousy of her sister with heartbreaking consequences. The final story follows a princess at the (fairy tale) age of marriage (Bebe Cave) and her loving, quirky father (Toby Jones, perfectly cast) secretly raising a giant who flees while also searching for a suitor for his daughter. When a monstrous ogre proves to be the only one who passes the marriage test set by the king, he sends his daughter off to live in oppression and unforgiving conditions with the monster.
While the final story is the most evident in its feminist theme of female retaliation, Tale of Tales – screenplay by a team consisting of Edoardo Albina, Ugo Chiti, Massimo Gaudioso and Garrone himself — is thoroughly charged by an overarching premise that cavernously depicts and challenges a female’s perceived place and worth in society. The emotionally immobilizing yearning of pregnancy and motherhood (partly pressured, party desired), the endless battle to stay young and beautiful and the struggle to flee various degrees of societal oppression are at the heart of this infinitely inventive film’s three tales and are fearlessly pushed to disturbing unapologetic extremes. Alexandre Desplat’s mischievous, memorable score purposefully contrasts and complements the film’s wild and varied gothic visual palette, reminiscent of the films of Guillermo del Toro. Its slightly disjointed structure and inefficient editing distract on occasion when toggling between the facets of various layered stories, but the movie’s eventual effect still proves to be complex and mesmerizing in its political intentions, which includes not only a feminist agenda but also a critique of oppressive social systems. Between the unforgettable image of Hayek devouring a bloody organ and a heart-stopping sequence where the young princess tries to escape its unmerciful captor, this is a riotous and fiendishly bizarre ride of pure imagination that delectably earns every minute of its screen time.
The Upside: Gorgeous visual palette and a fiercely original anthology of stories. Unapologetically feminist and playfully dark.
The Downside: Stalls at times when it doesn’t know how to quite toggle between its tales. But that minor fault doesn’t diminish its overall power.