The fantasy genre isn’t just elves and faeries anymore. As the huge success of Game Of Thrones has proven, there’s an audience for fantasy material that pushes things into more adult, thematically dark territory. There is a history behind this trend, as the unexpurgated versions of vintage fairy tales often have a lot of grim material that would make today’s parents faint.
Matteo Garrone’s Tale Of Tales is an interesting example of modern dark fantasy and that reaches back to the genre’s moralistic, often brutal roots. It is drawn from a 17th century two-volume collection by Giambattista Basile whose stories are considered to be the roots of the fairy tale genre.
Tale Of Tales focuses on three stories that are interwoven into one narrative. The first deals with the tormented relationship between the Queen Of Longtrellis (Salma Hayek) and the son (Christopher Lees) she conceived through magical means, who yearns to be alongside a twin born to a mother of peasant stock. The next involves the childlike King Of Highhills (Toby Jones), whose ill-conceived scheme to keep his daughter (Bebe Cave) from being wed results in her becoming the reluctant bride to an ogre (Guillaume Delaunay). The final tale involves the satyr-like King Of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel), whose amorous appetites lead to an unlikely involvement with a pair of aged sisters (Hayley Carmichael and Shirley Henderson).
Like many ambitious genre stories, Tale Of Tales uses its fantastic elements as a vehicle for social commentary. In this case, Tale Of Tales functions as a class critique, with the reckless and selfish actions of the upper class always causing suffering for others, especially the poor people who toil in their surface. All the stories also have an element of commentary about family life, including how possessive love can result in tragedy or alienation between family members.
Tale Of Tales draws out these themes with surprisingly subtle handling by Garrone, who is probably best known for his deglamorized mafia saga Gomorrah. He treats the magical elements – the ogre, an undersea monster, a flea that grows to gigantic size – in a matter-of-fact way, using them to add a unique stylization to its class and familial concerns. In doing so, he creates a world where characters are surrounded by magic but so distracted by conflict and self-obsession that they lose sight of it. The real tragedy never comes from the magic but rather how those reacting to the magic handle it.
That said, Tale Of Tales has its pure fantasy pleasures along the way. Garrone doesn’t let his realist concerns get in the way of the lavish style a fantasy tale needs: the Italian locales provide a great backdrop and the special effects and production design are similarly impressive. Veteran cinematographer Peter Suschitzky gives it all a rich, sumptuous visual style and Alexandre Desplat’s similarly lush musical score provides an ironic contrast to the dark drama that suffuses the story.
The eclectic ensemble cast also enhances the appeal. Hayek brings a moody gravitas to her obsessive queen role while Jones brings a satirical sensibility to his dim yet headstrong king and Cassel uses his gift for sly villainy to create a memorable lothario of a ruler. John C. Reilly pops up briefly as the noble husband of Hayek’s character and it’s intriguing to see him play such a subtle, non-comedic role.
Also worth noting are Cave, who has a fascinating transformation from a dreamy lover of romantic fiction into a manipulative and brutal survivor, and Henderson, who is heartbreaking as the cast-aside sister driven to a horrible sacrifice. Similarly, real twins Christopher and Jonah Lee, do touching work as the two most conventionally likeable characters in the film.
In short, Tale Of Tales is a dark fantasy that uses its shocks and darkness to provide an admirable commentary on realistic concerns. You don’t have to be into Tolkien to appreciate this film’s grim take on the magical.
Blu-Ray Notes: Shout! Factory picked up this IFC-distributed film for blu-ray and the results are impressive. The transfer does well by the lavish visuals and the lossless 5.1 mix creates a dimensional soundscape in a subtle way that has impact at the right moments. The key extra here is a nearly hour-long making of piece that shows plenty of Garrone directing on set, some musings from select cast members about their roles and some insight into the elaborate makeup and visual effects. A trailer and a few t.v. spots round things out.