Any lover of fairy tales would have to be excited to see Italian director Matteo Garrone’s adaptation of the 17th century Neopolitan author Giambattista Basile’s works.
The Brothers Grimm praised his takes on the classic tales of Rapunzel and Cinderella, and Garrone has set out to bring the writer’s work to a wider audience with “Tale of Tales,” a celebration of strangeness and humor.
The result is a visually stunning movie, melding three separate stories into one.
The first deals with a king (John C. Reilly) and his wife, Salma Hayek, who are trying to have a child but can’t. The only way for them to conceive, they are told by a mystic, is for the king to slay a sea dragon, cut out its heart and have it cooked by a virgin and then fed to the queen.
The second focuses on a princess who longs to be married but faces opposition from her father (Toby Jones). So the father devises a perverse plan. He has been keeping a giant flea as a pet, but the flea has died. So he has the hide preserved, hangs it on a wall, and holds a contest: Any man who can tell him where the hide came from can have his daughter’s hand in marriage. An ogre enters the castle, and he’s apparently well accustomed to fleas. He certainly looks like it. So he smells the hide and announces it’s a flea. Oops. Off the princess goes to the ogre’s lair.
And the third focuses on a prince (Vincent Cassel) who hears a woman singing and decides that he must woo her. But she disappears into a hovel and won’t come out. As we see, she’s really an old crone, someone the prince would not want to have as a lover. But she tries to trick the prince into making love to her. She has her sagging flesh glued tighter by her equally old sister and says she’ll visit the prince in his bed if he keeps the lights turned off. Naturally, after making love, the prince wants to see his paramour and lights a candle. Another oops moment. He has her thrown out the castle window, and when she lands below, a kindly witch turns her into a beautiful woman.
All of the tales have many more layers, and viewers will wonder where this is all leading. And that’s where the movie goes a bit off track. Garrone attempts to tie them all together at the end, and it seems quite unnecessary, and somewhat confusing.
The typical fairy-tale lessons about beauty being only skin-deep — and about finding the right prince — seem to be discounted by the end of the feature. But that’s something that viewers will have to decide for themselves. “Tale of Tales” still remains a visual feast.
It’s screening in competition for the Palme d’Or, and it’s the Italian director’s first feature in the English language. So it’s clear he’s hoping for a wider audience. Whether he gets such an audience of course, remains to be seen.
It’ll be interesting to see how one of the jury members, Guillermo del Toro, views the film. The Mexican director is well-known for adapting fairy tales and for his visual genius.