Buckle up, folks. We’re looking at some weapons-grade crazy tonight.
Tale of Tales tells three different stories set in three different kingdoms: Longtrellis, Strongcliff, and Highhills. The story in Longtrellis concerns two dear friends named Jonah and Elias (respectively played by identical twin brothers Jonah and Christian Lees). Though Elias is the son of the queen (played by Salma Hayek) and Jonah is the son of a poor unwed servant (played by Laura Pizzirani), the two boys are inseparable companions in spite of their difference in social class.
They also look perfectly identical and they were born at roughly the same time. This is because… no, fuck it, it’s too long a story and we’ve already got too much ground to cover. Seriously, there’s a whole prologue sequence devoted to this. Suffice to say that their mothers were made pregnant by the exact same magic spell and that’s why the boys have such a strong connection. It’s also why the queen’s husband (played by John C. Reilly, of all people) dies before the ten-minute mark.
Over in Highhills, their resident king is played by Toby Jones. And he’s neglecting his daughter (Violet, played by Bebe Cave) in favor of nurturing a flea that’s inexplicably grown to the size of a bear. Yes, you read that right. No, I couldn’t make that shit up if I tried.
Meanwhile, his young and beautiful daughter has been promised to whomever can successfully complete a supposedly impossible challenge, and I don’t dare go into any more detail about that. Alas, the plan backfires when the challenge is somehow beaten by an ugly and uncouth neanderthal (Guillaume Delaunay).
Last but not least is Strongcliff, where the king (played by Vincent Cassel) is a rampant womanizer who falls madly in love with every gorgeous lady he sees. And one day, he falls in love with a beautiful voice, unaware that it belongs to one of two reclusive old sisters (Shirley Henderson and Hayley Carmichael) who’ve shut themselves away from society for shame of how ugly they are. What follows is basically a riff on “Cupid and Psyche”, if the genders were reversed and Psyche was played by Pepe Le Pew.
It bears mentioning that the film (which has three credited screenwriters, by the way, one of whom is director Matteo Garone) was loosely based on the works of Giambattista Basile, a collector of fairy tales whose work predates the Brothers Grimm by a good two centuries. But even if you’ve never heard of Basile, and even if none of the stories are direct adaptations of more famous fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella, the style is still clearly there. Anyone who’s ever spent a childhood immersed in fairy tale lore (read: EVERYONE) will recognize the recurring tropes and archetypes that have all been reconfigured into something that feels old and familiar, but definitely stands apart as something new and unique.
That extends to the imagery as well. The film is undeniably beautiful to look at, with the kind of forest and castle settings you’d expect from a movie set once upon a time in a faraway kingdom. What makes it even better is that precisely because it’s unrated, the film can go 90 miles an hour toward the darker stuff where most other fairy tale adaptations would actively steer away from. When the tales need to be violent, they’re grisly. When sex and nudity come into play, they’re right there in full view on the screen. It’s very mature, yet it works because it’s all in the context of the story. When you get right down to it, this is the stuff that would be right at home in the darker, earlier fairy tales (see: the Brothers Grimm) taken to their logical conclusion.
Of course, there are times when the stories make some bizarre turns and we’re supposed to roll with whatever crazy random thing is happening. On the one hand, it kinda works because fairy tales. On the other hand, all that bullshit tends to pile up mighty fast.
What makes it even worse is that this isn’t an anthology sort of thing, where one story gets the main focus until it ends and we move on to the next one. No, this movie is constantly switching from one story to the other without any rhyme or reason. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, none of the individual stories have much in the way of structure. They just randomly go in whatever direction, drifting along from one batshit plot point to the next without so much as a distinct beginning, middle, or end. Sometimes, the film goes so far as to bring up plot points that are never mentioned again (Jonas and Elias’ plan to switch places “Prince and the Pauper”-style, for instance).
Last but not least, none of these stories tie in with each other. At all. It’s established that these stories all take place within the same shared universe, but the stories themselves are strictly self-contained from start to finish. None of the stories affect each other in the slightest, and any cross-pollination of characters is limited to a few inconsequential seconds at the prologue and epilogue.
An old fashioned fairy tale by itself is random and crazy enough. But when you have a storyline that’s loosely constructed of classical fairy tale tropes and archetypes, and then throw in two more such storylines so that all three cut from one to another in a random jumble, that’s bugfuck to the third power at least. Granted, the film still works on its own sort of logic, as the gorgeous visuals and the film’s bizarre nature start to cultivate a kind of dreamlike state.
But fairy tales — especially the older ones — are supposed to work as morality plays. And when a film is self-contradictory and random by nature, it’s hard to even pick up on what the moral is supposed to be, never mind take it seriously.
I’m chalking up Tale of Tales as a fascinating yet failed experiment. I get what the filmmakers were going for, and I applaud the effort. I love the notion of taking apart such universal tales and putting them back together into something new, especially when the results look this gorgeous. Alas, the film’s defiant lack of structure means that all of its disparate parts collapse into an incoherent mess. I wish I could applaud the cast of such talented actors as John C. Reilly, Selma Hayek, Vincent Cassel, and Toby Jones, but the storylines weave in and out so rapidly that nobody in the whole cast really gets a chance to shine.
Anyone with a taste for the weird and obscure would do well to look for this one when it comes online. Nobody else should bother.