Salma Hayek chows down on sea monster heart in Matteo Garrone’s riotous fantasy triptych.
Obviously this theory will contain its aberrations, but generally, if you’re able to watch a movie during which the question, “how in the name of Leslie frickin’ Nielsen did this get made?” pops into your head on more than one occasion, then you know you’re on to some sort of winner.
The producer credit of Brit maverick Jeremy Thomas goes a little way to explaining the existence of Matteo Garrone’s glorious monstrosity, Tale of Tales, but there remains long stretches where the feeling of being in the presence of a resplendent cinematic UFO remains.
Extrapolated from a trio of fantastical folk tales by 17th century Neapolitan poet Giambattista Basile, the film comes across as a gaudy, bawdy descendent to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s trilogy of life (which was based on the work of Chaucer), particularly in the way it explores the often eccentric ways in which humans derive happiness from the world.
Though the subjects on show include swaddling parents, unbridled vanity, the spiritual bond between siblings and the social divide between rich and poor, Tale of Tales is an all inclusive feature, opening its bejewelled arms to sea monsters, killer giant bats, ogres, fire breathers, shape-shifting witches and even a house-trained flea with gigantism.
Though the tales themselves sit triumphantly within the realm of high fantasy – all are instigated with the help of a highly metaphorical work of magic – their meaning is always lucid and highly prescient. Yet, unlike Garrone’s previous feature, Reality, which also premiered in the Cannes competition, Tale of Tales never feels like it’s parcelling out moral lessons or offering a blunderbuss social commentary. The tonally unadorned material is offered up for the viewer to mentally unbox in any way he/she sees fit.
Perhaps it’s a satire on the absurd whims of leaders (represented by royalty here) to rule with a sense of cogent diplomacy? Maybe these are three essays on different ways of expressing love to another? They could be about searching for sublime contentment through making large, potentially life-altering physical sacrifices, as seen early on when John C Reilly’s stoical monarch dons his antique diving helmet in order to source a sea monster’s heart for his beloved queen (Salma Hayek) so that she might become pregnant. They could well be none of the above.
The self-interest of the aristocracy could be identified as the theme which unites these disparate vignettes, though Garrone sees fit not to unduly ennoble the opposing underclasses and underlings who often bare the brunt of regal ignorance. No character in this equal-opportunities film fits cleanly into a category of good or evil – everyone has their flaws, everyone has their fragile side. Toby Jones’ daffy king neglects his bored daughter due to dedicating much of his time and energy on bringing up a amiable flea. And while his mild mania does have an amusing ring to it (though is never played for broad laughs), you do see a man with an awful void in his life which he’s desperate to fill.
The prime joy of this movie is its episodic dedication to surprise, where it develops its own inimitable internal logic within the first few scenes, yet keeps on raising the wacky bar as the runtime canters on. And it is surprise, not just random images and digressions thrown in the pot to raise a cheap titter.
You can tell this by the immaculate detail of its production design, the careful framing and choreography of its shots (exacting without feeling showy or overly studied) and its overall tone of prestige literary baroque. It builds a world which sits at a modest but calculated remove from historical and temporal reality, and is all the more bold and beautiful for it.
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