J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

AFI’s EU Showcase ’15: Tale of Tales

Neapolitan poet Giambattista Basile’s fairy tale collection predated Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, but despite their subtitle, “Entertainment for Little Ones,” they are considered idiosyncratically macabre and even a little NSFW. Of course, those are both rather cinematic qualities. Matteo Garrone duly emphasizes the strange and baroque in Tale of Tales (trailer here), his English language adaptation of a trio of intertwined Basile fables, which screens as part of the AFI’s 2015 EU Film Showcase.

Three neighboring kingdoms largely coexist quite peacefully, because their respective monarchs are so self-absorbed with their own issues. Thanks to the help of a necromancer, the Queen of Longtrellis magically conceives the son she always desired, at the mere cost of her indulgent husband (and basically her soul). However, Prince Elias never adequately returns her codependent love. Instead, he prefers to spend time with the commoner Jonah, who is his exact spitting image.

The King of Highmountain is equally problematic in the completely opposite way. He ignores his antsy-to-be-married daughter, Princess Violet, preferring to obsess over his abnormally large trained flea. When he finally makes a show of arranging a contest for her hand, he inadvertently grants her hand to an ogre.

Meanwhile, the horndog King of Strongcliff has fallen in lust with the voice of the peasant Dora. However, he does not realize she is one of two old crone sisters living hand-to-mouth in a cottage on his estate. Feigning coyness, Dora manages to hold off the King until she can come to him under the dark of night. Complications ensue.

If you haven’t realized yet, there is sex in these fairy tales. There are also flashes of violence that are shocking in the moment, but not at all gratuitous. Be that as it may, it is easy to see why the archetypal source material has been largely passed over by animators and children’s publishers. Tale of Tales still seems likely an unlikely direction for an ultra-realist like Garrone, but he reportedly claims all his films have a kinship with fairy tales. You can sort of see that in a morality tale like Reality, but it is less apparent in the thinly fictionalized social expose, Gomorrah.

Regardless, there is a lot of cool stuff in Tale, including Toby Jones talking to a giant flea and Salma Hayek eating a dragon’s heart. There are also tightrope walkers, damsels in distress, damsels causing distress, shapeshifters, and Shakespearean confusion with twins. Garrone and editor Marco Spoletini shrewdly time the shifts between narrative strands, maintaining a nice up-tempo pace. Alexandre Desplat also contributes a very Desplat-sounding score (classy, but not particularly distinctive). However, production designer Dimitri Capuani and the battery of art directors creates a richly detailed fantasy world that is both lovely and sinister.

Tale of Tales could be considered The Princess Bride’s evil twin, making it exactly the sort of fairy tale movie we have needed. It is much more fun than Catherine Breillart’s fairy tale films and more subversive than Snow White and the Huntsman. Recommended for fans of dark fantasy, Tale of Tales screens this Saturday (12/12) as part of the AFI’s EU Film Showcase.

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