In the popular mind, fairy tales have come to mean something sweet and happy and cute, and you can thank, or blame, Walt Disney for a lot of that. But the real thing, the stories I read as a child, from Perrault and Hans Christian Andersen and, above all, from the Brothers Grimm, are much darker than that. The themes and archetypes of these tales are shot through with fear, inchoate desire, mysteries of the family, fate, grief, evil, and yes, sex, concealed as it might be by many disguises. This is the fairy tale world depicted in a new film by Italian director Matteo Garrone called Tale of Tales.
Garrone is known primarily on these shores for Gomorrah, a 2008 drama about organized crime in Naples. The subjects of his films, however, are quite diverse, and here, in his first English language production, he launches into the mythic realm, teaming up with three other screenwriters to adapt (very roughly) a few stories from The Pentamerone, a 17th century collection by one of the lesser known fairy tale authors, Giambattista Basile.
Salma Hayak plays a queen desperate to have a child. A sorcerer advises her to eat the heart of a sea monster that has been cooked by a virgin. The queen becomes pregnant, but so does the virgin, who is a simple peasant, and they give birth to white-haired boys who appear to be twins, and of course become best friends. Jealous of her precious son’s affection, the queen tries to separate the boys, with dire consequences.
Entwined with this tale are two others, taking place in neighboring kingdoms. In one, a dissolute young king played by Vincent Cassel, falls in love with a woman whom he knows only by her singing voice. He tries to get her to reveal herself, not knowing that she is an old crone living with her equally wrinkled sister. They hatch a plan to deceive him. And in the third story, a weak, fussy little king played by Toby Jones, neglects his daughter who wants to find a husband, instead devoting his attention to a pet flea, which he fattens up to enormous size.
The costumes and set design are in an Italian baroque style, and they are stunningly beautiful, as is the cinematography by the veteran Peter Suschitzky. Garrone doesn’t make the picture seem unreal, like a fantasy, but more like a heightened and extravagant reality. At various points, the film is very funny, disgusting, or scary. There are monsters in the movie, created in the old-fashioned way, with models, which is delightful and much more frightening than a computer effect could be. The story features more than a few disasters—people can get killed pretty easily in a fairy tale. Tale of Tales, as you may have guessed, is not a film for kids, but it does reflect in some way the moody and deadly serious imaginings of the kids we used to be.