Tale of Tales (2016)Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 06/06/16 14:29:34
SCREENED AT THE 2016 BOSTON SCI-FI FILM FESTIVAL: The term "dark fairy tale" has likely been applied to "Tale of Tales" again and again, and it comes by that label legitimately, with director Matteo Garrone and his three co-writers basing the script on a four-hundred-year-old book of Italian folk tales. Yet - and this may just be a lifetime of Disneyfied animated versions speaking - it doesn't quite feel right. There's a point to fairy tales, and while all three stories in this one involve hubris, it too often feels delightfully lush but not exactly pointed.Its three stories take place in neighboring feudal kingdoms. In Longtrellis, the Queen (Salma Hayek) and King (John C. Reilly) are of different temperaments during a party - he is generally cheerful and amused by the performing clowns, she is more and more consumed by her failure to conceive a child. A necromancer (Franco Pistoni) tells her of a way that she can conceive, involving the King slaying a giant beast and a virgin (Laura Pizzinirani) cooking its heart for the Queen to eat. Sixteen years later, her son Elias (Christian Lees) is a teenager, but much closer Jonah (Jonah Lees), the identical son born to the cook at the same time, than his mother.
All three portions of the film have neat hooks, fine casts, and sleek visuals, and this one is no exception: It's gorgeous, Salma Hayek in particular is riveting in a forceful performance, and the practical effects used for the creature are terrific. The trouble is, the very cool fantasy set-up doesn't have a place to go once the Queen forbids the twins from seeing each other. The point of the story is clear - a parent who tries to keep her child from the people he cares about will, at best, poison their relationship - but the execution is not nearly as memorable as the set-up. The Lees twins are not nearly as captivating as Hayek, and their story just doesn't stick in the mind like hers does.
Meanwhile, in Strongcliff, the King (Vincent Cassell) hears a wonderful singing voice, the sort that makes one fall in love immediately, not realizing that it comes from elderly Imma (Shirley Henderson). Due to a bizarre set of circumstances, her similarly-aged sister Dora (Hayley Carmichael) winds up brought to the castle instead, and the King is not pleased. But after an encounter with a witch in the woods after she's thrown out, Dora is restored to beautiful youth (Stacy Martin), and that certainly catches the unknowing King's eye.
This is easily the sexiest of the segments - there is nothing unpleasant about looking at Vincent Cassell and Stacy Martin - and also the lightest at times. It offers some interesting fantasy mechanics, in that not only is Dora's body revitalized but her mind becomes sharp in comparison to Imma, but doesn't do much along those lines because half the joke is that young Dora is pretty cheerily superficial in her second chance at life. There's a meanness to the way it's executed at times, but Martin often captures a little nuance in between Dora's selfish moments. Factor in the genuinely odd bits, and it's a diverting tale, at least.
The most complete takes place in Highhills, whose King (Toby Jones) is a bit of an odd duck, becoming fascinated by an aphid and raising it to unusual size while also setting tasks that must be accomplished in order for someone to marry his romantically-inclined daughter Violet (Bebe Cave), quite unprepared when an ogre (Guillaume Delaunay) wins and hauls her back to his mountain hideaway.
Of all the segments, this is probably the most well-balanced; it's got two off-center performances from Toby Jones and Bebe Cave - which, in addition to being fun to watch on their own, help convince that these two are in fact family - and has both cheery moments and very nasty ones. It's perhaps got the widest gulf between its brightest and darkest material, but it's also the one that draws the best line connecting them - Violet's got an actual story that brings her from one extreme to another and lets Cave show that this young woman is more than she appears to be. It's the tale that most seems like it has a purpose beyond style and eccentricity.
There's nothing wrong with style and eccentricity, of course, and Garrone gets his cast and crew to put them on screen with flair; there's barely a moment when what one sees on screen is not, on some level, interesting. He and editor Marco Spolentini jump between their threads with ease, finding good contrasts and transitions while also keeping a good pace in each segment of a story.Still, for the most part, it's the idea of each portion of "Tale of Tales" that impresses, not so much the idea behind it or the execution. It's not empty like so many attempts to tell fairy tales for grown-ups, but it doesn't have the resonance that great fairy tales do no matter who the audience may be.
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