Tale of Tales is an epic horror fantasy based in a seemingly timeless baroque era revolving around the lives of several aristocratic linages and their kingdom politics. Although the key characters are established together in the opening act, they have their own stories and within those smaller stories clever sub plots are weaved in.
Beginning in the familiar vein of fairy tales and folklore, we have a desperately unhappy baron queen played by the devilishly attractive Salma Hayek who can’t conceive. Not even the circus people in the court let alone the whole world can put a smile on her face as she wants a child and will do anything to be pregnant. In comes the creepy fakir-wizard (Franco Pistoni) who informs the king (John C. Reilly) and queen of a remedy and like all anecdotes and spells, there’s risk. Done without song, as seen in the most recent fairy-tale film Into the Woods, the King must kill a sea beast, cut out its heart and have a virgin cook it for the queen. Valiant in his quest he delivers what is asked.
In an instant the queen becomes pregnant and gives birth to a child the very same night. The virgin also does the same. The sub plot of this particular tale is the relationship between the brothers who play together in secret.
Other tales include a sex addict for a king played by Vincent Cassel who in one scene is seen stumbling through the aftermath of an orgy which would make Torture Gardens proud (although I’m sure they’ve done many baroque themed parties). With sodomy through a fantasy-porn backdrop, roman baths, leftover fruit canopies and drifting haze from a natural spring, it was actually a surprise not to see the king resort to somnophilia whilst he tried to bugger sleeping whores.
A fairy-tale wouldn’t be convincing if it didn’t possess the phantasmagoricc reverence we expect, in the third tale a socially inept king makes a pet bug out of a flea, feeding it in the same way character Jesús Gris did to the insect in Cronos. Blood and undercooked innards are always the answer to keeping any organism alive. My cat might grow into a massive fur beast if I feed it healthy rations of the best flesh in town.
When the princesses’ fate falls into her useless father’s hands and she’s sold to an ogre. The idea of bestiality is repulsive as the poor under aged princess is devoured by the inbred.
This is a stunning picture beaming with indulgence where locations and castle architecture appear like jewels of the world. In fact, real castles were used from around Italy with an incredible eight months of location research. Most scenes could pass for later baroque paintings and some chiaroscuro styled cinematography, highlighting the magic realism in the film.
The character arcs however had similar themes as all were driven by self-obsession where problems and misfortune were a result of their narcissism. Perhaps this is the point, no spell or herb will make you better, the same mistakes will always be made, fairytale is today’s horror and like drugs, folly and madness are the best escapism.
Amongst the films grandiose palette, one does ponder whether it was worth it all. The stories weren’t anything out of the extraordinary, but it’s important to know that they were original stories written by a 16th century poet named Giambattista Basile. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White are just a few of the tales written by Basile which over time have been influenced and adapted by other writers.
This could be why Tale of Tales feels like it’s come a little too late especially with many more folklore narratives being explicity portrayed in television series, for example Grimm. The fantasy and horror could have been more influencing.
Tale of Tales is a good example of a theatrical film where you can imagine watching all of the actors on stage, we tune in for the melodrama, cliffhangers and spectacular scenery unfolding in front of our eyes. It’s an enjoyable ride, but whether it’s memorable is yet to be seen.