Anthologies have a very unsteady place in the history of cinema and film criticism. More often than not, films that feature independent storylines end up with mixed messages and inconsistent production values. Audiences frequently favor one story thread over another, weakening the film as a singular artistic endeavour. Nonetheless, some filmmakers have managed to make it work. For one reason or another, it is a form that has seen the most success in the horror genre with films like Creepshow (1982), though a bastardized version of the practice can be found in various romantic comedies, like Love Actually (2003) and Paris Je T’Aime (2006). In Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales, we are presented with three adaptations of classic fairy tales from Italian poet Giambattista Basile. While all three storylines are thematically and stylistically related, and the stories themselves are loosely interwoven, they are all distinctive interpretations of different classic tales.
Though I will provide a brief summary of each storyline, I will not give away the endings to any of them, as this would greatly weaken the viewing experience. In the first thread, the Queen of Longtrellis (Salma Hayek) wants to have a child more than anything, but has had no success with the King (John C. Reilly). In an act of desperation, the Queen makes a deal with a necromancer (Franco Pistoni); if she eats the heart of a dragon, she will be given a child, however, accepting the deal will cost a life. The King slays a dragon for her, but is killed in the process. When the Queen gives birth to her son, Elias, an identical child, Jonah, is born to the servant who prepared the dragon’s heart. As the two boys grow up, they become inseparable. The Queen, wanting her son to only show her affection, becomes consumed with jealousy, and hatches a plan to get rid of Jonah once and for all.
In the second thread, the King of Highhills (Toby Jones) becomes obsessed with a particularly intelligent flea, which he keeps as a pet in secret. As the King continues to feed the flea, it grows into an enormous creature. One day, the flea dies and the King is devastated. He decides to skin the flea, and holds a contest at court for the marriage of his only daughter, Violet (Bebe Cave). Any man who can guess the creature that produced the skin can have his daughter’s hand in marriage. They are horrified when an Ogre is able to guess that it is the skin of a flea, and, unable to go back on his word, the King hands Violet over to the Ogre. When the Ogre takes her back to his cave, she dreams of escape, and hopes to one day return to her Kingdom and the father who abandoned her.
In the final thread, the King of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel) has an insatiable thirst for women, and when he hears beautiful singing from his bedroom window, he is determined to find and seduce the woman responsible. He approaches her home, and speaks to her through the door, completely unaware that she is one of two elderly and unattractive sisters, Imma (Shirley Henderson) and Dora (Hayley Carmichael). Dora agrees to sleep with the King, but only if it is in complete darkness. The King agrees, and the two sleep together in his bedchamber. However, while Dora sleeps, the King lights a candle and sees her face. In a fit of rage, he orders his guards to throw her out of the window, but she manages to survive the fall when she gets entangled in a tree. A witch happens upon Dora, and nurses her back to health from her breast. When Dora awakens, she is a young, beautiful woman. While out hunting, the King sees her and insists on making her his queen. Now that Dora has become beautiful and lives a life of luxury, Imma longs to be with her sister and become beautiful as well, no matter the cost.
Needless to say, these stories do not attempt to soften the darker aspects of the original fairy tales, and in some cases the morbidity is amplified with gore and violence. The film’s different stories involve rape, self-harm, violence against women, and grotesque creatures, among other unsavoury subject matters. Even though some of these same stories have been adapted into children’s movies by Disney and others, this version attempts to keep the original tone, and refuses to whitewash the content.
What gives fairy tales their own special staying power is their ability to address our existence and sense of morality in subversive ways. They often function as parables or allegory, where the characters represent common human flaws, which often lead them to disastrous consequences. In Tale of Tales, one of the flaws that ties all three stories together is obsession. In each thread, a character becomes obsessed with acquiring something great, or preserving something great that is slipping from them, only to overreach and lose it all. They also speak to the conceited nature of the human ego, so bent on self-interest that one can forget all others, abandoning basic morality in the process. The Queen wanted a baby so badly that she was willing to allow others to die; the King of Highhills became so fixated on his pet flea and his own sense of superiority that he gambled his own daughter away; and finally the King of Strongcliff was so blinded by his own libido that he pursued the mere illusion of beauty, while Imma pursued the illusion of restoring her own beauty, without any regard for her own well-being.
Ultimately, Tale of Tales is a fascinating film to dissect, though the messages of each story are rather heavy-handed; this is not so much a result of poor film practice as it is a key element of fairy tales in general. In their original form, these stories taught life lessons, and were often the end result of years of oral tradition. Tale of Tales is not for the faint of heart, as it is at times grotesque and off-putting, but this actually works in the film’s favor. Nothing is obscured for posterity’s sake, nor are things rewritten to be more palatable for our modern sense of morality. In the end, it is a film that just might revitalize the anthology subgenre, and will hopefully usher in more fairy tale adaptations that don’t shy away from their own source material.
Rating: ★★★★ out of 5
Tale of Tales is available to rent or purchase via Amazon here.