PLOT: Inspired by the 16th century Italian fairytales Giambattista Basile, three interlaced tales of nearby European kingdoms offer up giant beasts, doppelgangers, ogres, witches, warlocks, virgins...all tethered to a disturbingly irrevocable fate.
REVIEW: Holy hell! BAFTA nominated Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone (GOMORRA) makes a resounding arrival to his English language debut via TALE OF TALES - a strikingly imagined, beauteously photographed, pitch-perfectly performed cinematic curio that, in the best way possible, simply defies description. I have no idea what the movies larger themes are trying to convey, and I really don't care, for my interest was greatly piqued, my attention utterly gripped, and despite not knowing exactly what was happening at certain times, couldn't help but give myself over to such well executed, old fashioned storytelling. With an intricately textured mélange of horror fantastique, tragic familial drama and out-and-out fairytale sensibilities, TALE OF TALES offers a bizarre triptych of a fully enveloping, well drawn world with the size and scope of a sweeping 16th century epic. In that regard, there's really an awful lot to like about the flick. Do wise and try to peep this one on the big-screen when it drops this Friday, April 22nd!
The first of three strands of TALES we're treated to introduces us to Queen of Longtrellis (Salma Hayek) and her ineffectual King (John C. Reilly). Unable to get pregnant, the queen seeks the sage advice of a local talisman who informs her of a way to not only reverse her infertility, but actually become pregnant over a single night. Bonkers! I'll refrain from telling you exactly how, but suffice it to say, the Queen's miraculous newfound pregnancy doesn't come without a costly price (hint: see the films poster). Oddly, when her albino prince of a son Elias (Christian Lees) is born, we instantly leap forward in time 17 years or so, where Elias gallivants around with a peasant doppelganger named Jonah (played by Christian's real life twin, Jonah Lees). Together the two parade around the countryside, much to the Queen's chagrin, even nefariously plotting to rule the kingdom one day in (secret) tandem. When the Queen is made privy of such a conspiracy, the put her own line of recourse in play to keep her princely son to herself, unsullied. Can she do so peaceably?
Tale number two gives us a glimpse at the always entertaining Vincent Cassel as the King of Strongcliff, an insatiable lothario trying his hardest to woo the panties off what he deems an 18 year old peasant girl. Not so. Turns out the girl is actually an old, skin decaying witch named Dora (Hayley Carmichael) who lives in a cottage with her equally harridan sister Imma (Shirley Henderson). As the King further advances, Dora somehow casts a sort of spell of self-sacrifice that allows her to "change her skin" and appear far younger, prettier and more vibrant. This works on the King to the tune of him proposing marriage, but when Dora accepts, Imma takes vexing umbrage with whole idea and threatens to expose their true nature. It's a fascinating exploration of desire, betrayal and grand deception without ever hitting you over the head with such universally thematic cornerstones. Part of that has to do with how mysterious the whole strand is, and how absorbed we are while watching it unfold. We're too caught up in the granular to even notice the larger picture, which in an interwoven anthology of sorts, is hard to accomplish.
Lastly, and perhaps most outlandish, is the tale involving Toby Jones as the King of Highhills. Intent on marrying off his princess daughter Violet (Bebe Cave), the highness' attention gets sideswiped by a pet flea, yes a flea, that he nourishes until it grows into a gigantic bloodsucking beast. Shite's gnarly! When the beast grows too large to house inside the castle, it escapes into the wild and ultimately runs into Elias and Jonah, the two albino doppelgangers. I'll leave it to you to see how that harrowing exchange plays out, but in the meantime, the King arranges Violet to marry a brutish ogre against her wishes. Holed up in a remote cave, Violet must brave an escape away from the ogre's mighty clutch and return to her kingdom intact. I won't say if she does or doesn't, but I can assure you that, fraught with peril and an oddly perverted mythical quality, the tale of Highhills is one you won't soon forget.
And frankly, to extend the contention a bit further, either is the entirety. This is first rate filmmaking in just about every department, chiefly the acting and seamless direction. So out of the realm of reality are these fantastical vignettes, yet through the committed acting of seasoned vets like Cassel, Jones Hayek and others, this crazy theater of the bizarre comes off as quite believable. I just loved how no easy answers are provided during any time during the film. This is old-school storytelling, where bits and pieces of info are meant to be gleaned and cobbled together, all hurling toward a revelatory climax that's almost impossible to foresee. Seriously, Garrone and co-writers deftly interweave the plots of each separate story in a way that you come to a point of almost feeling lost, totally confused, even ready to give up hope on having any kind of resolution. Then, a course is taken that quite literally marries the competing threads in a way that makes them sing rather harmoniously. Granted, we can argue how satisfying the resolution is, but the way in which the overarching narrative somewhat comes full circle really ought to be commended.
All this to say, TALE OF TALES is certainly worth a watch. It's a meticulous meld of traditional folklore, dreamlike fairytale and the oddly macabre. Each of the three stories not only work well on their own as standalone units, they're seamlessly integrated in a way that actually creates an even more admirable whole. It feels organic, not forced or over-manipulated in any way. No matter how outlandish the material becomes, it's all made convincing by the dedicated, top-flight acting, the size and scope and richly textured cinematography that lends itself to an immersive world to get lost in, and the sly-circular direction lends just enough of a satisfying conclusion to neither feel pat nor tidy. Straight up, if you dig truly bizarre cinema that draws you with the holding power to keep you intrigued, TALE OF TALES is firmly planted in that camp. See it!