This could be one of those fairy tales that doesn’t turn out happy ever after…except maybe sometimes. Matteo Garrone, director and his fellow writers (Edoardo Albinati, Ugo Chiti, Massimo Gaudiso) based their production on an Italian folklorist (Giambattista Basile) who wrote 50 tales, and this is three of them. (Basile pre-dated the Grimm brothers in Germany.)
Garrone (Gomorrah), who is known for weaving in the fantastical with the mythical/psychological, does so again here inTale of Tales. The tales all involve kings who embody the human condition of chasing after the elusive, being thwarted by fate/magic, and being ultimately undone (or not).
The three kingdoms of the kings are Longtrellis, Highhills, and Strongcliff. The first king, played by John C. Reilly, has a barren wife, and in deference to her, is willing to do anything to produce an heir. They are visited by a seer who says, “You want a child? Every new life is cause for a life to be lost.” Heedless of the caveat, they say they will do anything. Little do they know what costs will be extracted from them and that the twins, born to different mothers, have an extraordinary connection to one another. This will be significant in that one twin’s mother is the queen, but the other one’s is a scullery maid. (More than a touch of magic here.)
The second king, played by Vincent Cassel, expecting any woman he has a yen for to succumb to him, is bested by deceit and duly horrified. But soon, he thinks he has found his true love. Only…he doesn’t know how that love came to be.
The third king, played by Toby Jones, has a beautiful daughter whom he dotes upon, but in getting preoccupied by a flea and tending to it, he loses track of priorities and puts her at great risk.
Themes running through Tale of Tales are meaningful (thoughtless parenting, sibling rivalry, bargains with the devil, obsession, and the main one, narcissism), but they are presented as more of a curious look at human behavior than illustrating moral principles. That conclusion is left up to the viewer.
I did enjoy humorous aspects of the film (a woman thrown out of a castle window being caught up in tree limbs with her lover’s crimson bedsheet still around her, a flea turning into an exotic beast as a result of the king’s fascination, a woman desperate for regaining her youth willing to do anything), but the lack of integration among the three stories and the absence of any obvious moral principle made the film seem less important.
Cinematography by Peter Suschitzky and music by Alexandre Desplat more than made up for this drawback. Hayek, Cassel, Jones, and Reilly were regal figures with very human qualities; they can be considered masters of acting.
Retelling three ancient fairy tales.