Old Men from the Chimney Corner
Fairy tales come to us as bowdlerized, kiddy-friendly pap stripped of their black forest of the id, whereas the seldom exhibited originals are often nasty, brutish and bloody. Matteo Garrone brings the sources back home and to the screen in his co-written Cannes-premièred Tale of Tales/Il racconto del racconti. The three loosely yet at once integrally related pieces are adapted from one of the West’s important but little known framework tales, that of fifty by Neapolitan seventeenth-century Giambattista Basile, Count of Torrone.
Gruesome, horrible, funny, didactic, grim, realistic, fantastical, supernatural, sentimental and romantic, these cinema stories are built on the old magical mystical number three. As in the director’s stark Gomorrah though this time in English, separate adventures alternate, intertwine and reflect on one another in total effect, the jumbled chronology as much a part of the whole as are the very impressive cinematography, costuming, score and unique natural and man-made locations.
Queens and kings, princesses and princes, castles and peasant villages, itinerant circuses, magic and monsters, ogres, forests and grottoes are included, but the mood is hardly out-of-time and –place “once upon a time” to “happy ever after.” The tone is European ironic, sustained for the entire five minutes over two hours, though American sensibilities might not take to it and thus miss out on this international-cast treat.
There is no obvious overarching theme as such, but the stories are female-centered and deal with children and self-absorbed single parents, with sisters and magical half-brothers and the quest for youthful beauty and also adulthood. (THERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD.)
The unsmiling-because-childless Queen of Longtrellis (Salma Hayaek) pouts in black until a necromancer (Franco Pistoni) advances a dangerous solution in which the King (John C. Reilly the Brief) is killed but she is impregnated with albino Elias while a virgin scullery maid (Laura Pizzirani) is impregnated with his in-effect half-brother Jonah (identical twins Christian and Jonah Lees). Years later the fatherless grown boys are closer than Her domineering Majesty would like, so she banishes the pauper whom, transformed into a jealous cave monster, she soon seeks to devour.
Far distant in another striking castle, the King of Highhills (Toby Jones) ignores Princess Violet’s (Bebe Cave, whose sister Jessie also appears) public musical performance to concentrate on a flea he captures and will secretly raise to giant fleahood underneath the royal bed. The young adult Princess is bored stiff out there in the middle of nowhere and so is to be betrothed to whichever foreign suitor can pass the traditional fairy-tale test which her father the King assures her is foolproof. Lo and behold, a giant scarred Ogre (Guillaume Delaunay) correctly answers the question and so wins her hand though decidedly not her heart and, to top it off, is not transformed into Prince Charming.
Years later or before, the slovenly sensual King of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel) leaves an orgy to be enraptured by the singing voice of an unseen damsel. Allowing him only a sight of, and a kiss on, her index finger, she is one of two poor shriveled sisters, Dora and Imma (Hayley Carmichael and Shirley Henderson). The hags play on his insistence but, after a night of revelry in disguise, Dora is literally uncovered and thrown from the castle window. Miraculously unharmed and metamorphosed into a naked young redhead (Stacy Martin), she is spied by the King on a hunt, courted by and married to him, sought by her sister and later turned back into her real wrinkled self.
Through dark ironic twists and turns but also light humor at man’s (and woman’s) immemorial foibles, this Tale of Tales wanders. Heroines, heroes, villains and fools populate its human comedy. Playing against type and expectation, the film intrigues and, as a bonus, entertains.
(Released by IFC Films; not rated by MPAA.)