Fairy tales are weird things in general, although the Germanic ones we’re more used to hearing do at least usually come with a moral attached. The works of Giambattista Basile, on which this is based, are… well, just very fucking odd if I’m being honest.
In his defence, Basile did come up with Cinderella and Rapunzel among other things, but here we’re ignoring glass slippers in favour of gigantic parasites, sex-hungry kings having it off with septuagenarian peasants, and weird twins born from magical monster stews.
The whole thing is meant to be ‘interwoven’, but barring one final scene there’s not much to suggest this. What Tale of Tales does get right though is the visuals. This film is eye-wateringly beautiful. It has a sense of heightened reality and deep, rich colours which reminded me of Tarsem Singh’s criminally under-seen The Fall (Please, please go and watch it immediately). It’s rich and slightly garish at times, but the visuals fit the magical story perfectly.
Tale of Tales is actually a set of three vignettes: The Queen, The Flea and The Two Old Women, with the narrative flitting back and forth between each.
Salma Hayek stars in our first tale as a queen desperate for a child (and also married to John C. Riley, who looks surprisingly regal in crown and leggings). A necromancer foretells that she can become pregnant by devouring the heart of a sea monster, with predictably unstable results. The king dies retrieving the heart, the girl who cooks the heart becomes pregnant as well, and both women give birth to albino children who look exactly alike. This tale doesn’t really go anywhere – one twin wanders off when he’s a teenager, and then get’s it in the neck – but it does provide us with some arresting sequences. Not least the petite Hayek crouched over a massive, bloody heart, forcing strips into her mouth.
The second tale, ‘The Flea’, is completely bonkers, with a king becoming attached to the titular parasite and raising it on a diet first of blood, and then steaks. Soon enough, the Flea reaches an enormous size (And contrary to expectations, is actually rather cute), but dies of a respiratory illness (I told you it was bonkers). So the king skins it, and promises his daughter’s hand to anyone who can identify which animal the hide came from. EH?? Oh, and an Ogre wins. And carries the princess of to the mountains, and then some travellers kill him. That poor, ogery bastard.
If you can work out what the moral is here, then please write in, because I’m buggered if I can.
And then we have ‘The Two Old Women’. Who aren’t old women at all. They’re two young women caked in make-up, and involved in a plot to trick the horny king who lives nearby (a superbly cast Vincent Cassell). Lots of boob-tape and one magic spell later, and one of them ends up young again, ruling as queen. She doesn’t want to hang around with her younger sister, who decides she’s also become young. By flaying all her skin off. Look I don’t know, I just work here.
If understanding or simple storylines are your bag, then move along. If however you like lush, richly realised romance, action and weird mediaeval jokes, then step right up. Tale of Tales isn’t really a great tale at all, but it is a superb visual experience, full of fine performances from a great cast that are clearly enjoying the hell out of things. Some parts may be a little scary for the very young (A flayed woman for one. Some impromptu lesbian sexy times for another), but it’s a good date film that entertains throughout.