Overview: Three royal houses in an imaginary land encounter distinctly weird problems when each of their desires gets the better of them. 01 Distribution; 2015; 134 minutes
Once Upon a Time: Walt Disney animated films, particularly those based on fairy tales, have always advocated that chasing down dreams and true love (not necessarily romance) was the direction in life that will allow a person to reach true contentment. Selflessness and compassion, more often than not, are the attributes that help a person get there faster. Films like The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and Frozen all cement this idea by letting each of their main protagonists attain their innermost desires without having to delve into any morally-ambiguous places. Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales takes the direct opposite approach to advocate the same idea.
Prince and the Pauper: In the unspecified land in which the film takes place, our main characters all share the same flaw of committing themselves to their own desires, instead of committing themselves to showing care for their loved ones. The first character through which we come to understand the scope and intent of the film is the Queen of Longtrellis (Salma Hayek). The Queen desires a child so much she and her husband (John C. Reilly) resort to a necromancer and his spells to deliver a child to them. The necromancer’s sorcery eventually works out for her, and she is impregnated, but so is a poor woman in the city, with the twin. The two sons eventually become inseparable friends, to the disdain of the Queen, who desires her son to remain loyal to her alone. It is her desire that causes the rift between them to expand further, and on the flip side, it’s the selfless and mutual bond the brothers share that brings them closer together.
A Cinderella Story: The first story is largely unconnected from the second and third stories (all three stories are isolated, really, in what amounts to an anthology). This makes for very unique narrative choices, as the film divides each story into three parts and intersperses it throughout the other two stories. There’s nothing really connecting the individual stories, aside from being thematically consistent and showing parallelism between all the stories’ three-act structure. This editing makes it a particularly compelling and engrossing watch. None of the stories drag on or overstay their welcome, and since the stories are so bizarrely unique, the film never seems repetitive.
The most peculiar of the three stories is the one that follows the poor old woman (Hayley Carmichael) who tricks the lustful king (Vincent Cassel) into thinking she is a beautiful maiden in order to sleep with him. The poor, old woman suffers her literal downfall when the king eventually discovers that she is actually old and has her thrown out of the castle. She gets her second chance when a witch turns her into a young and beautiful woman. She later gets to marry the king, but in doing so, she neglects her poor, old woman friend (Shirley Henderson) who helped her trick the king the first time. Her second downfall later in the film shows the error of chasing down rich desires and pleasures, while the king loses his love only because he couldn’t accept her physical appearance.
Beauty and the Beast: Embracing beauty as a product of the internal substance instead of the attractiveness of out appearance is something applied in the film’s direction as well. The story is one that advocates love over desire, as has been told in other mediums many times before, but the film handles it in an unusual way. Given the film’s modest budget and that it’s one of many in its genre, it is impressive that so man shots feel unique from any existing work of fantasy. Some of the imagery is odd, but it’s stunning and meaningful in the context of the film. It seems implausible to find normalcy in a giant flea fulfilling the role of cherished pet for a King (Toby Jones), but the film manages to make this a significant and credible image in service to its story.
The King spends most of his time with his pet flea, often neglecting his daughter (Bebe Cave). He even marries his daughter off to an ogre for his ability to identify the pet’s skin as the skin of a flea. The ogre keeps her as his wife and rapes her, while the king does nothing to stop him. The king’s blatant self-centredness and ignorance leads to a string of misfortune for his family, while his daughter is only able to find salvation through her the compassion of others.
Overall: Tale of Tales is a unique look at the consequences of holding desire and pleasure in higher regard than morality. With an eclectic cast of characters and visual style, Tale of Tales proves that not all fairy tales deserve a happy ending.
Featured Image: 01 Distribution