LIST CANDIDATE: TALE OF TALES (2015)

Il Racconto dei Racconti

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Toby Jones, , Bebe Cave

PLOT: Peace and harmony reign between three neighboring kingdoms, but all is not well with the countries’ monarchs: in her desire for an heir, the Queen of Longtrellis goes to extremes; trying to avoid marrying off his daughter, the King of Highhills accidentally dooms her to wed an ogre; and the King of Strongcliff attempts to woo an unseen (and unsightly) singer that won his heart.

Still from Tale of Tales (2015)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Director Matteo Garone weaves together three differently unsettling fairy tales with a sure hand and A-list actors. Sea monsters, giant fleas, and creepy albino twins are just a few of the wondrous sights to see in this medieval fantasy. The undercurrents of death, deformity, and violence make for an unsettling amalgam when coupled with picturesque castles and countrysides.

COMMENTS: An international cast, sumptuous European locales, familial conflict—yessir, Tale of Tales screams “Film Festival” and “Art House.” Fortunately for us, attributes like bloody murder, spontaneous gestation, and youth-bringing lactation also make it scream “weird”! Indeed, looking over some of the “Weirdest Search Terms” from my time here, I suspect at the very least that last one will notch 366 another visitor from the far corners of the web. Tale of Tales delivers a strong dose classic European fairy-tales without skimping on the grisly elements that made them such macabre stories.

Using three stories from Giambattista Basile’s early 17th-century collection of Neapolitan fairy-tales, director Matteo Garrone allows an unlikely group of fantasy characters to stumble toward their fates, occasionally stumbling into each other. The Queen of Longtrellis’ (Salma Hayek) husband is slain while killing a sea beast he hunted so that his wife could devour the monster’s heart—a solution, we are told, for the couple’s infertility. Attending the funeral is the kind-hearted King of Highhills (Toby Jones) together with his daughter Violet (Bebe Cave). We also meet the lusty lord of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel), appearing from beneath the skirts of two courtesans in his coach before arriving at the procession. Things bat back and forth between their tales throughout the movie, and needless to say, the roads these monarchs and their families take are a bit bumpy.

Judging the “weird” merits of a fantasy movie can be a challenge, for while unreal things necessarily go on, that is expected from the genre. However, the defense of my bold claim in the case of Tale of Tales is made easier because of the extremes the movie goes to with its material. The story of the Queen of Longtrellis alone cements things firmly in our realm of the weird. Not only did the Queen need to eat the serpent’s heart, but during the preparation thereof (by, as specified, a solitary virgin) the young cook becomes with child herself; both women are pregnant just one day before delivering, separately, identical albino twins. Disapproving of her own son, Elias[1], fraternizing (as it were) with the peasant’s son, Jonah[2], the Queen eventually makes a second Faustian bargain resulting in, to put it crudely, “Form of Bat!” …And on top of that there’s the mightily growing flea-pet of the King of Highhills and the sad tale of the two crones who accidentally steal the heart of the King of Strongcliff.

I’m generally skeptical of the “interlocking narrative” structure found in some films — I regard it as a poor excuse to cobble together what should have been multiple short ones. However, the tone in Tale of Tales is consistent throughout, and any potential disjointedness is mitigated both by the very smooth editing work and the presence of a troupe of carnival performers who appear at key points throughout the three narratives. And did I mention there’s ? Showing up barely in time for his own demise, I like how he can always be counted on to add a touch of pathos. Tale of Tales is a beautiful, weird movie that is a reassurance to fantasy genre fans everywhere.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There was already something wonderfully weird and carnivalesque about Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone’s past films… Now, the director has let his circus ringmaster’s instinct flower with the bold, barmy ‘Tale of Tales’… the sheer, obstinate oddness of ‘Tale of Tales’ sends crowd-pleasers like ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘The Hobbit’ scuttling into the shadows of the forest in terror.”–Dave Calhoun, Time Out London (contemporaneous)

  1. “Elias” is a variant of “Elijah”, the prophet known, among other things, to be the harbinger of the End of Days; he twice fills this role vis-à-vis his own parents. []
  2. That a boy conceived by the consumption of the heart of a giant fish should be named “Jonah” is, in my view, more than a bit gratifying. []

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