All three of them end in blood: the story of the albino twins born to two different mothers by a necromancer’s spell; the story of the beautiful young princess accidentally bargained off by her foolish, distracted father as the bride to a terrible ogre; the story of the two wizened and old sisters desperate to reclaim their youth after their singing stole the heart of their not-so-noble king. But then, early fairy tales were not very pleasant.
Few of them were recorded earlier than in Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone, translated as The Tale of Tales. First published in Italy in the 1630s, the Pentamerone contained some of the earliest surviving versions of such classic fairy tales as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. But Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales opted instead to adapt three of its lesser known stories. The resulting film weaves the three together beautifully; not once does the film seem to neglect one story at the expense of another or linger on one for too long. Not all of them end happily—indeed, not all of them end justly—but each teaches variations on a single theme: the dangers of selfishness.
Take the first story we’re introduced to: for want of a child, the Queen of Darkwood (Salma Hayek) follows a wizard’s advice and consumes the heart of a sea monster cooked by a virgin. Does she care that her husband the King (John C. Reilly) dies in the heart’s retrieval? Or that the virgin cook also becomes magically pregnant with her son’s twin? Or that her maternal megalomania leads to the boys running away and almost being killed? Certainly not.
Neither did the King of Highmountain (Toby Jones) care that he was neglecting his daughter Violet (Bebe Cave) for his precious pet flea until it was too late and she was being carried off by a monster he was powerless to stop. The most heartbreaking moment of selfishness comes in the other segment where the elderly Imma (Shirley Henderson) has herself flayed alive in a vain attempt to match her sister Dora’s beauty, the latter being enchanted by a witch into a lovely maiden. If only Dora (Hayley Carmichael) hadn’t been so determined to seduce the lothario king (Vincent Cassel) that she repeatedly humiliated the mentally fragile and lonely Imma.
Of course, I’m leaving out important details. These stories all carry such further nuances and complications that mere summaries do them no justice. Neither could my writing properly capture Peter Suschitzky’s excellent cinematography. A bold blend of old school practical effects and complimentary CGI (instead of the other way around), Tale of Tales rejects the historical facsimiles attempted by Pier Paolo Pasolini in his Trilogy of Life which brought to the silver screen three of the world’s other great collections of folk tales and legends: The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972), and Arabian Nights (1974). Suschitzky’s world matches the exuberant colors and pageantry of early Hollywood Technicolor adventure flicks with Westerosi carnage.