ITALIAN director Matteo Garrone makes his English-language debut with Tale of Tales, a very likeable fantasy period drama that alone redeems previous disappointments that bought concern prior to viewing this.
Set in 17th century Italy and based on classic Italian tales by Giambattista Basile, the film focuses on three different stories revolving around three ruling members of royalty, the Queen of Longtrellis (Salma Hayek), the King of Highhills (Toby Jones) and the King of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel).
In one, the Queen and King of Lontrellis (John C. Reilly) are eager to have a baby, yet the many attempts have gone unsuccessful. When an unusual opportunity arises for the Queen to fall pregnant, the King agrees to it, even though it is basically a suicide mission. Upon killing a sea dragon, the consumption of its heart by the Queen will give her the child she craves, which the King undertakes, costing him his life, but granting his wife what she wants. When the child is born, time passes to the point where once the child becomes adult, her obsession with him serving under her threatens the existence she acquires.
In another, the King of Highhills gradually becomes obsessed with the discovery of a flea who develops into a life-size creature. When tragedy strikes, the King finds himself taking his frustration on his daughter Violet (Bebe Cave) whose encounters with an ogre spell out an all-or-nothing survival aspect.
In the last, and funniest, part, the sex-obsessed King of Strongcliff finds himself infatuated with a woman who he only knows of via her voice. In reality, she is one of two elderly-looking sisters who desperately try and hide her appearance. Upon sleeping together, the King’s horror at discovering her appearance inadvertently results in her being discreetly transformed into a younger-looking woman, fooling the King but leading the other sister to seek potentially dangerous compensation.
One had initial doubts as to whether this would work, owing to the disappointment of Garrone’s previous features, Gomorrah and Reality. In fact, the first ten minutes suggested that it was going to be yet another disappointment from a director who had yet to match the likes of Sorrentino and Moretti for bringing something significant to contemporary Italian cinema.
Once C. Reilly encounters the dragon however, one knows this is going to be unorthodox, and from that moment, we sense something enjoyable, which it does become. In fact, it becomes more enjoyable as the film progresses, getting moodier, funnier, darker and more surreal on the way.
Coming out over a year after premiering at Cannes last year where it unfortunately went away with nothing, Garrone’s choice of actors contribute to what plays as most welcoming on screen. The best of these is Cassel, bringing in a somewhat comedic performance of a King whose penchant for sex leads him to territory that ends up repulsing him, prompting a repetitive yet quotable usage of the term ”Guards!”, a term mentioned again in a late sequence.
Jones also proves why the industry would be foolish never to hire him with his role that sees a mixture of sympathetic and unsympathetic tones on his part. His devastation at the loss of what he sees as a genuine comfort to his life makes us sad for both him and the creature, yet his actions later make us question why he has chosen to take advantage of his power so unnecessarily.
The specific sequence where Violet is effectively taken into the mountains by the ogre who wins ownership of her leads to the film’s more enjoyable scenario, a climactic confrontation with a tightrope scene that reminds us why last year’s The Walk was not a mentally comforting experience. Its twisty elements also provide the sequence with some form of unpredictability, making the film work better for not handing the viewer anything for granted.
There are some images in the film that range from sheer beauty to downright surreal, with the shots of landscape, mountain shots and underwater scenes shown alongside a shot of Hayek scoffing the dragon’s heart.
Of the three storylines, the best ranks as arguably with the King of Strongcliff, due to its humour and especially its sense of irony. Seeing the things happen because of the inability of others does make this section admirable in terms of storytelling. Even though this storyline is clearly more engaging to watch, the other two stories bring their own level of engagement as well, even if one sees the Highhills story second best with the Longtrellis in third.
It is because of the film’s nature at getting better as it progresses that one feels a genuine belief that this will be watched a second time at least before year’s end, and there is a possibility that this could feature amongst the year’s best.
Evident that the genre of fantasy in some way shape or form can be tailor made for the arthouse crowd Tale of Tales is proof Matteo Garrone can do good. A solid piece this is.