Review: Tale of Tales – A gorgeous vision of Giamattista Basile’s dark classics

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ADAPTED from the works of the Neapolitan poet, courtier and folklorist Giamattista Basile (c.1565-1632) principally, his Lo Cunto de li Cunti, overo trattenemiento de peccerille- The Tale of Tales, or entertainments for the little ones, Matteo Garrone’s eponymous multinational production presents three of Basile’s tales: La Cerva Fatata (The Magical Doe) La Pulse (The Flea) and La Vecchia Scorticarta (The Flayed Hag) although elements from many of his other tales are also present, or spliced, along with a considerable degree of artistic license on Garrone’s own part.

Whereas Basile’s tale of tales follows the tale-within-a-tale formula which was almost certainly inspired by Arabic versions of the 1001 nights, Garrone instead presents the three aforementioned episodes sequentially, switching between the tales with the scenes. The effect can be disconcerting, but it also ensures that the pace never lets up and it prevents each of the episodes from settling into a contrived formula.

It is probably appropriate that Garrone ditched Basile’s subtitle, since much of the film’s content might be found by many to be of questionable suitability for children; a trait it shares with the source material, which itself abounds with eviscerations, imaginative vulgarity, magical donkeys which literally excrete fortunes and a great many other elements that would today doubtless be considered today in pretty poor taste. It’s fascinating material then, for considering the incredibly different perception Early Modern parents and adults had towards children, especially since it stems from a period (the early 17th Century) when childhood was being entirely redefined (and in many ways, invented) as a concept. But what of the film?

The production and cinematography is gorgeous, and I’d recommend the The Tale of Tales on the merits of this alone, as bright, natural lighting highlights exquisite sets make individual shots look like a Caravaggio or Ruben. The lush vibrancy of the sets perfectly complements some wonderful use of costume and cosmetics. There’s seldom a frame you wouldn’t be pleased to hang up on your own wall (and I’m spoiled for choice just picking out a few).

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The film opens with a single flowing shot showing a circus troupe preparing to entertain the King (John C. Reilly) and Queen (Hyek) of Longtrells outside their castle. With the gaudily attired, powder besmirched troupe going about their japes and capers in the king’s throne room – surrounded by appreciative courtiers and a less-than-amused Queen Longtrells – the film dives headlong into its chief themes of fantastic spectacle and dark humour.

Just like the work of the artists Garrone was doubtlessly inspired by for the baroque visuals, Tale of Tales takes a savage delight in capturing beguiling beauty and luxury in the same frame as barbaric savagery and debauchery: be it the regal Queen of Longtrells (Hyek) eagerly devouring a heart in a marbled porticoed hall; a lavishly dressed hag having herself flayed in a forest clearing; or a disturbingly young-looking princess (Bebe Cave) being thrust into a cave full of decaying cadavers as her monstrous groom brutishly introduces his prize to her new home.

Beyond the fantastic cinematography, what really stands out in Tales of Tales is how effectively it captures Basil’s distinctive manner of storytelling. Where Perrault’s work, similarly replete with dark elements, is, at its core, obsessed with imposing an orthodox morality with it’s hard-learned lessons, and the work of later folklorists like Andersen and the Grimm brothers sought to produce stories which were at once lighter and more palatable for a contemporary young audience and readership, Basil’s subject matter is undeniably cruel and often dark. Yet his Tales are also inescapably upbeat and devoid of Perrault’s didactic morality.

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If Basile is as ready as Perrault, if indeed not more so, to provide a harsh lesson to his characters, and a ready quip to his audience however, than it is with a good deal less apparent ire and fear of transgression. There is a sense throughout that even the best of us err, that try as one might, things are certainly bound to go wrong, and that the best thing to do is always to learn from one’s, and one another’s, mistakes and move forward. In this, unencumbered approach to storytelling, Basile seems to have borrowed, like many of his Italian contemporaries, from his poetical and satirical classical predecessors.

Thematically, what all the tales have in common is that they share an Ovidian fascination with change and metamorphosis. Just as in Ovid, there is no clear spectrum of morality here, virtue and bravery do not guarantee good fortune, and some characters win a happy ending through savagery, duplicity or general pig-headedness. Garrone has certainly stayed true to the spirit of Basile’s often earthy and selfish characters, virtually every character behaves reprehensibly and many are downright awful.

A case in point being the debauched King of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel) replete with many Bluebeard-esque motifs, such as a great mane of hair, a permanent state of both lust and intoxication, and a penchant for bumping off one or other of his conquests and wives on a whim. Despite his many abhorrent attributes in the film, however, Cassel succeeds by portraying him as a magnetic, dark comic foil; a man who is so much a slave to his own passions that he will always ultimately be the butt of the joke, whether wittingly or not.

The film is also true to the uneven wheel of fate motif so heavily espoused by Basile. This is perhaps best realised in the episodes concerning the old women where beauty is shown to be literally skin-deep, in the most macabre of fashions. The pair, Imma and Dora are played with delightful croonishness by Shirley Henderson and Hayley Carmichael respectively, in wonderfully grotesque cosmetics.

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Whilst the terribly ill-advised machinations of the sonorous voiced but hideously visaged ladies – with the more assertive Dora cajoling a simpering Imma into following her horrendously flawed plan of pretending to be the young maid Stronghills assumes her to be – will get plenty of laughs from the audience. They are not merely hag caricatures but, in a few short scenes are shown to have dear affection for, and dependence upon, one another. This makes their diametrically opposing fortunes that much more conflicting.

The one finds her plans horribly foiled only to exclaim, in a manner that could not be more wrong, “I am not funny!” Once she is made to see the joke, she finds her fortune entirely reversed as she is morphed into a Millais-esque maiden (Stacy Martin, of Nymphomaniac, um, fame) who Stronghills happens across and is, predictably, enraptured by. Imma, by turns, finds fortune by her sister’s new-found luck, but, envious and unable to accept this change of circumstances she instead chooses an altogether more grisly fate in what is the blackest of black jokes.

As much as Garrone shows a clear reverie for his source material, he isn’t deterred from making alterations to his characters, fleshing out those that would’ve otherwise been trope-ridden, whilst not detracting from the fantasy. Whilst the acting is generally excellent, with Salma Hayek in particular stands out as a captivating Queen of Longtrells. In a film in which dialogue is exceptionally sparse, Hayek with her cold and frustrated baring communicates first her despair, humiliation and rage at being unable to bear a son. Afterwards, her adoration of her miraculously born heir contrasts violently with her spite towards the peasant maiden’s son, who grows to be the prince’s doppelganger and inseparable brother-in-arms.

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Garrone also very much plays his own hand with the Tale of the Flea. Where Basile’s King of High Hills is an imperious despot, Toby Jones plays him as a weak-willed and retiring king, who, having formed a deep attachment to a flea, adoringly cares for it until it reaches grotesque proportions. Despairing upon its death, he hatches upon a scheme to use the flea’s ginormous hide as an unsolvable challenge for his daughter’s suitors and thereby keep her at his side. Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a tale if everything worked out for him. What’s new here, besides the more sympathetic interpretation of High Hills, is part of his daughter Porticella (Bebe Cave).

Where she begins just at much the naïve and helpless coddled princess, brought up on courtly tails of chivalry and torturous self-devised guitar recitals as Bassile’s princess, this Porticella quickly evolves her own sense of agency and finds her own tough answers to the wretched fate she finds herself in, instead of relying on the fortuitous interference of seven uniquely talented youths; though these do make an appearance, their role is subverted in a very Angela Carter-esque twist. Her response to her father’s selfish act of lunacy is also wonderfully biting.

If I had to pick a peeve with The Tale, I do think the film should really have been shot in Italian, or heck, maybe even French. Though the atmosphere is dreamy and enchanting enough to take place in any 16th centuryish euroscape, the vast alpine valleys, the lavish marble vistas and airy sandstone towns and keeps all scream of a continental, rather than anglo-germanic fantasy setting; Into the Woods this ain’t.

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It’s a minor point all things considered, and it certainly didn’t actively detract from my enjoyment of the film, but as Garrone had such an evident drive towards authenticity with Basile’s work, seeing it in the language the poet lived and breathed would personally been welcome in this insance, especially considering the adoration for his Neapolitan home Basile gives frequent voice to throughout his work. But yeah, I’m sure there’s an excellent dub somewhere.

It’s also true that Tale of Tales, is certainly not a neat film. Plot threads are left dangling all over the place and it’s hard to say if much of any resolution is to be had by the end: It’s like reading three chapters in the middle of what might be a large volume and then snapping it shut. Why is there a burning man tight roping at the end? Fuck knows. But for all that, watching the film, it hardly seems to matter how little semblance of a conclusion, or moral, for that matter, there is. Or how wafer thin a hefty portion of the character development is. Instead, I think the film works best as a simply arresting visual and emotional experience.

D.H Lawrence once wrote (in one of my alltimefav superbly pretentious writer quotes) that, when reading Eliot’s Wasteland, which he greatly admired, he had found it best to approach it with ‘my mind closed and mouth open.’ Well, I wouldn’t recommend doing that exactly in the cinema, unless you’re okay with a few odd looks and a very dry mouth, but it definitely helps if you approach Tale of Tales with a less than discerning mind-set and simply enjoy the descent down the rabbit hole without grappling for meaning; like I’ve just been doing for much of this review… It won’t please everybody, but everybody should go and see it.

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The film is certainly effective at capturing that heady, self-propelling and almost delirious logic which surrounds a child’s fantasies but Garrone also captures how these tales can speak revealingly to a mature audience of any epoch. At their core, a great many of Basile’s tales seem to have a simple message beyond that the author voices: what can go wrong, will go wrong, and what god/s there are must surely be laughing at our expense, so why not be in on the joke. Few of the tales have the happy endings we are now accustomed to.

Moreover, any hope of justice or retribution for those antagonists there are frequently disappointed. Commonly, there aren’t any villains in the traditional sense at all, merely people behaving like beasts and beasts struggling to be like people. It’s also really pretty and stuff; did I say that? Oh, and the score’s really nice (Desplat). Go track it down, and maybe give Basile’s Tales a read sometime – love them or hate them, they’re almost certain to surprise you.

“Troubles are usually the brooms and shovels that smooth the road to a man’s good fortune, of which he little dreams; and many a man curses the rain that falls upon his head, and knows not that it brings abundance to drive away hunger.”

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