Like The Princess Bride directed by Ken Russell, Matteo Garrone’s Tale Of Tales is a full-blooded and decidedly adult fairy tale. Set in a quasi-medieval Europe of castles, four-poster beds, bulbous gowns, the movie relates a grimly comic set of interlocking fables.
It begins with a king and queen (respectively, John C Reilly and Salma Hayek) who turn to witchcraft in order to conceive a child, before lurching to the story of monarch (Vincent Cassell) who’s so sex-obsessed that he embarks on a romance with a peasant girl based purely on her angelic singing voice. You can probably guess the king’s reaction when he discovers that the peasant girl is actually far older and more leprous than he assumes.
Weirdest of the lot is the story of yet another king (this one played by Toby Jones) who rears a giant flea and then, for reasons far too complicated and wonderful to relate here, unwillingly marries off his lily white young daughter Violet (Bebe Cave) to a hideous ogre. You might think from these brief descriptions that there isn’t very much linking these surreal, dark and sometimes violent stories, but the realisation gradually dawns that each carries echoes of the last. A pair of siblings are reunited in one story, while a pair of sisters are divided in the next; one character becomes a royal over here, while a luckless heir is cast into a filth and misery over there. To loosely quote George Lucas, “It’s like poetry. It rhymes”.
A deeper meaning behind Garrone’s mad fantasy is harder to pin down. At first, it’s enough to simply admire his often stunningly conceived images: a character dining on crimson offal in an ice-white room. Toby Jones befriending his pet flea. Tale Of Tales brings us universal stories of birth, death, marriage and desire, but viewed through a uniquely strange filter. Dramatic irony is everywhere,and there’s a recurring theme about divisions: between old and young, rich and poor, life and death.
Relying less on obvious splashes of CGI than most mainstream fantasies, Tale Of Tales’ use of real European locations and physical effects set it apart from the likes of, say, Duncan Jones’ Warcraft or Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies. There’s an earthiness to the creature designs and costumes that brings Tale Of Tales closer to the look and feel of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s underrated adaptation of Umberto Eco’s The Name Of The Rose, or maybe Paul Verhoeven’s American debut, Flesh + Blood. There’s also a hint of the matter-of-factness that made Garrone’s 2008 Mafia drama Gomorrah such compulsive viewing.
Where so many films leave us numbed by their swooping computerised vistas, Tale Of Tales keeps things at gut-level. There’s a wonderfully ominous funeral sequence which, thanks to some stunning competition and sound design, provides a captivating moment to pore over before Garrone suddenly shifts the action to a jarringly sordid moment elsewhere.
Cut to Alexandre Desplat’s lush score, Garrone’s film moves with between tones with ease. Some scenes have all the humour of a joke well told. Other moments in Tale Of Tales are gory on a level approaching Game Of Thrones. One sequence is genuinely terrifying. Inevitably, the film’s sheer weirdness won’t endear everybody – one or two people were checking their phones in the screening I attended. Those with a taste for the imaginative and the surreal will surely be bewitched by Garrone’s fairytale anthology, however, and there’s the strong possibility that Tale Of Tales will acquire cult status in years to come.
My advice? Cut to the chase and watch it in a cinema while you can.
Tale Of Tales is out in UK cinemas on the 17th June.