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Any movie where John C. Reilly plays the king of something is all right by me.

Tale of Tales is  the  English language debut of Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone. I don’t know his other work, but Tale of Tales may be a good reason to change that. If his other movies are as gorgeous and exquisitely composed as this one, that is. I’ll be looking into it.

It’s odd to see what is ostensibly a fantasy movie pop up almost without fanfare in the era of Game of Thrones. Especially one aimed at adults and adapting a well-known book of fairy tales. As one might expect, Tale of Tales delivers classic fairy tale thematics and irony within it’s interwoven storytelling. Tale of Tales takes three of the stories The Pentamerone and bookends them with events that bring the cast together, though fleetingly. For the most part, we are taken in and out of the three storylines as if they are all one, which is intentional due to the primary theme they all share: be careful what you wish for. Classic, yes, but never boring. Tale of Tales is darkly funny, frequently unsettling, and constantly beautiful. It’s even more of an achievement when you consider its budget, which is about $30,000,000 USD. These days, that’s low-budget filmmaking.

Though Tale of Tales is compelling, especially on analysis, it can be a bit hard to follow. I’m not sure if this is an artifact of the tales themselves, or Garrone doing his first English movie, or if it’s intentionally keeping the audience at arm’s length. I would think the latter, because there are very few if any scenes where characters discuss their motives or indulge any exposition whatsoever. The audience is trusted to infer the right things, to do the required analysis on the fly, and so on. It seems to exude respect for its intended, adult, audience and that deserves a lot of credit even the last chunk of the movie errs on the side of ambiguity.

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Look at that sea monster. Just look at it.

The first of the stories involves the King (John C. Reilly) and Queen (Salma Hayek) of Longtrellis. The Queen is unhappy because she has not been able to conceive an heir. A Necromancer (Franco Pistoni) tells them what they need to do and, being a good guy, the King agrees to kill a sea monster so that his wife can eat its heart and become pregnant. And just a shout-out for the sequence where the King of Longtrellis goes underwater to stalk the beast… it’s one for the ages. The practical effects in this movie are amazing. Anyway, this gets him killed, and his funeral briefly brings together the subjects of the other two stories: The King of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel) who is a philandering hedonist, and The King of Highhills (Toby Jones) who is defined by his relationship with his daughter.

Some years after the death of the King of Longtrellis, all these folks have gone about their lives. In Longtrellis, part of the ritual to get the Queen pregnant involved the preparation of the heart at the hands of the virgin. As fairy tale logic tends toward irony and the unexpected, this virgin also becomes pregnant and the two identical elfin boys are raised together. The Queen doesn’t like their relationship, as she wants to be the only thing that matters in her son’s life. If the ridiculously awesome and atmospheric shot of Salma Hayek eating the sea-dragon’s heart didn’t convince you, I’ll flat out tell you that she don’t do half-measures. Her ruthlessness and her son’s mystical connection to his sort-of-brother wind up being mutually exclusive.

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Yeah.

Meanwhile, the King of Strongcliff has become bored with all the nookie that his hedonistic life and luxury have afforded him. Getting precious little dialogue in a consistently dialogue-light movie, Cassel gets across the boredom in small gestures and looks. He’s obviously looking for something new, some adventure or conquest that will drive away his doldrums. He ends up conceptualizing that as yet another conquest when he spies a village girl shrouded in a cloak, after hearing her sing. He thinks she’s a new and untapped beauty, and he becomes obsessed with this new possibility, which is really the same old possibility. Interestingly, the girl is actually a pair of very old sisters. Dora (Hayley Carmichael) and Imma (Shirley Henderson) live together in relative seclusion. Dora is the more vain, the more grasping, and ends up roping Imma along into what must be one of the weirdest seductions I’ve ever witnessed. Though the characters are probably in their 80’s, the actresses are nowhere near that old and I have to say that the old-age makeup in Tale of Tales is some of the best I’ve seen.

Strongcliff is patient and eventually he is rewarded with a discrete tryst with Dora. There’s a scene where they use some kind of glue to tuck in all of her loose skin, hoping that the lack of light and a few cosmetic tricks will keep her from being found out. This is great stuff, feeding into both the tragedy and repulsiveness of vanity which allows you to laugh at these sisters, feel sympathetic for them, and also feel a bit sympathetic for Strongcliff in spite of his creep factor.

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Which is, well, high.

Over at Highhills, the King is losing his beloved daughter, Violet (Bebe Cave) to her need for fulfilment. She wants to get out in the world and have her own life. As she drifts away, Highhills finds another opportunity to love and nurture in the form of a flea. Feeding it his own blood and, later, steaks and shit… the flea grows to be a giant. It’s cute somehow, too, and I wish I had a picture to add in here. Never would have expected a giant flea to be cute, for fuck’s sake. But it is.

Eventually, though, the flea dies and the King is beside himself. Violet has also lost patience and wants to be married off. The King had thought she’d drop it if she understood that marriage was the primary way to get out there for a woman in her position. Instead, she embraces the idea which forces the King to improvise. He wants to keep her close, so he devises a contest that he’s sure no one can win. He has the flea skinned and asks suitors to guess what animal it belongs to. He’s having a hoot at first, while Violet is completely unaware of his ruse. That’s until an ogre (Guillaume Dilaunay) comes along. He, it seems, has seen a giant flea before. Or at least smelled it. One whiff and he knows what’s up. That makes Violet his. Again, everybody should be careful what they wish for when they live in an Elizabethan fairy tale universe.

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As weird as it is, Highhills’ love and glee about his new pet is kind of infectious.

So by this point, it’s easy to see what sort of thematic work is being done. All of these characters want something and, whether they know it or not, they want it desperately. All of these desires are selfish, and it’s also easy to see how a more earnest expression of those desires would probably be the best way to go about having them realized. For one reason or another, mostly more self-interest, none of these people can tell each other what they want. This leads them to seek other avenues. They’re all people who can’t communicate their needs, and look to an easy solution, a clever one, a magic bullet. The point Tale of Tales is carefully and consistently orchestrating is that there is no magic bullet. The lack of self-awareness for these people, and by extension the kind of person who deals with their problems this way, is the catalyst of their undoing.

Prince Elias and Jonah (Christian and Jonah Lees) were conceived by magic, and are bound by magic. Though she should have learned her lesson in using magic in the first place, Queen Longtrellis keeps going back to that well because she is fairly incapable of just talking to her son, and probably of really seeing him as more than just an extension of her. For her, it ends poorly as a result. She is the ruthless and stubborn refusal to try something new when old habits don’t work out.

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I mean, not seeing the “inseparable” nature of these two is just delusion on a whole new level.

King Strongcliff finds out about Dora’s true nature, of course, and casts her out. He literally has her tossed out a window in disgust, which is a dick move. She survives, though, and encounters a witch. Suckling from the witch’s breast (I know, okay? but that’s what kind of movie this is!), she regains her youth. I’m not sure if the witch is trying to punish the King or Dora here, or what the hell her motives are, but she is an agent of the story’s overall irony. The point is that Dora accepts the magic as a given and when the King finds her, he forgets all about old Dora and thinks he’s at last found his new adventure. Instead of fucking her, he marries her, and suddenly Dora has everything she ever wanted while poor Imma is left bereft of both her sister and her sister’s dream. When they find each other again, it’s not Dora who is destroyed by Dora’s vanity.

Imma’s fragility is reactive. She sees what is possible for Dora and wants it too. Dora found it by magic and Imma looks for some magic of her own. Her magic is ugly, atonishingly cruel, and ultimately unsuccessful (because of course it is). Imma dies for her sister’s vanity, a price Dora is too self-absorbed to fully appreciate. Dora is self-deluded where Queen Longtrellis understood the nature of magic and its price, but was too ruthless and stubborn to put aside her desire. Dora just thinks she’s blessed and untouchable. Strongcliff never looked for magic as a solution, and though he’s a weirdo, he’s another victim on Dora’s altar. When her vitality starts to fade, it’s him who is going to be left unfulfilled and betrayed just like Imma was. So trying to get away with easy, but poorly understood, solutions to our desires doesn’t always cost us directly (at first) but certainly costs those around us. Carrying on from the way Queen Longtrellis’s desires kill her husband and alienate her son, Dora’s desires have similar and dramatic effects on her people.

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Young Dora (Stacy Martin) gets to be a wonderful realization of Bloedwedd, a Celtic mythological figure, in this shot.

King Highhills loses his daughter to the Ogre, who takes her far away into a mountain cave. Violet is miserable there and though it seems the Ogre has a rough sort of affection for her, that affection quickly devolves into caveman courtship… which is rape, basically. Highhills’ reliance on his less flashy magic (the flea) therefore costs his daughter big time, continuing the thematic line from the other stories.

Luckily, a traveling circus (who are seen occasionally throughout the movie) crosses paths with Violet. They attempt a bold rescue, but the Ogre catches on and brutally kills every fucking last one of them. Violet, with no hope left and probably pretty tired of being a pawn in the desires and with no magical solution at hand, does the obvious thing. It’s interesting to note that Violet never has the opportunity to solve her problems or achieve her desires by magical means. I wonder what she would have chosen. Because she doesn’t have the chance, it’s her story that winds up redemptive.

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Maybe an argument can be made that choosing the knife rather than the embrace of the Ogre is still a choice between the easy way out and the hard way. That feels right to me, actually.

She makes it home, where her ailing father is miserable without her and in shame over what his pride cost her. She, however, has become a fucking force of nature. He abdicates and makes her Queen, putting someone who knows what it is to make her future with struggle and her own hands at the center of the story at last. The other stories complement this transition, but Jonah and Elias’s final struggle is less dramatically on point for this theme. And Imma, who mistakes struggle and magic for each other, dies because she chose the knife.

Part of the reason that Violet and Highills’ stories are the last bookend, and the thematic ending of the overall tale, is because it’s only Highhills who is able to accept what is. His condition before Violet’s return, and his rejuvenation later, are symbolic of that. He doesn’t die in stubborness like Queen Longtrellis, and he is not oblivious like King Strongcliff. He knows what he did, he knows the cost, and we understand that he would not choose the same again. Likewise, I think it’s safe to say that Violet would be a different kind of ruler/person than the Kings and Queens of the three realms in the movie. Elias as well, really, and I imagine that Strongcliff might better understand himself after Dora’s fate has time to settle for him. But the only person we really need to see assuming the mantle of transcendence of the fairy tale is Violet. There’s an unmistakable feminist leaning in how the story goes this way. Violet becomes not only an avenger, murdering her rapist and casting off the commodification of women in that moment, but she also attains power and becomes the most fully actualized and aware character in the movie.

 

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And it begins in blood.

Tale of Tales is a movie I’d recommend especially to myth and fairy tale buffs and pretty much anyone who likes to analyse symbolically rich stories in general. As you may have noticed, the structure of this review is similar to an interpretive essay, wherein summary is heavily leaned on as a skeleton on which to hang the analyses. A lot of my reviews go that way, but it’s an especially useful technique when writing about a movie like this one (I think!). It reveals the simplicity of the plot when compared to the complexity of the subtext, and how these things intermingle to make a narrative that is more about a moral or philosophical idea than it is about the events that transpire. Without an appreciation for this, Tale of Tales will likely come across as boring, obtuse, and slow when it is none of these things.

I don’t think it’s a real problem for the movie that it doesn’t more generously provide for the audience, in other words. I think it’s a problem for audiences. That said, Tale of Tales is unlikely to be a huge movie and it’s not being released with that intention. It may be forgotten and overlooked, but I’m betting that it’ll find a cult following. I’m hoping this review helps, in whatever small way.

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