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Tale of Tales [AFI FEST 2015]
IFC Films // Unrated // November 7, 2015
List Price: Unknown [Buy now and save at Afi]
The idea of a fairytale sounds childish to most, as many of them are recognized as bedtime stories. While there are some that are incredibly light, there are others that are disturbingly dark. Nevertheless, these stories often tackle the very same themes of greed, morality, and jealousy. This is even consistent through Matteo Garrone's Tale of Tales. After making the highly-acclaimed Gomorrah, crowds lined up at AFI FEST 2015 for the chance to see where his visual depiction would take us in this new fantastical motion picture. Based on Giambattista Basile's book titled Los cunto de li cunti overo lo tratenemiento de peccerille, the film went on to compete for the Palme d'Or at Cannes Film Festival. While occasionally enchanting, the film is littered with faults.
Tale of Tales is Garrone's first English-language film, as he weaves three separate stories together into one fantastical world. A jealous queen is willing to do whatever it takes to have a child of her own, a king becomes obsessed with two mysterious sisters whom he has never even seen, and the daughter of another king tries to seek out a suitable husband to go on adventures with. Including sorcerers, monsters, and circus performers, all of the characters have one thing in common: a happily ever after.
Having never read the stories that the film is based upon, this is the first time that I have heard any of these tales. Nevertheless, I found them all to be equally absorbing. Since they take place over the course of three separate kingdoms, we're able to see the cultural differences between them. However, their desire to obtain something is what brings them all together in a way that works quite well. Matteo Garrone, Ugo Chiti, Edoardo Albinai, and Massimo Gaudioso's screenplay makes them feel like one complete plot, as the feature continues to go back and forth between the different stories. None of them are told in a linear fashion, keeping it from feeling like less of an anthology and more like a single narrative that spans across three separate locations. The characters within this world are incredibly imaginative. While appropriately exaggerated, they are both genuine and relatable. Whether it's having sex, a child, or a finding a marriage partner, they seek what many people desire all around the world. Of course, since it's a fairytale, not everything goes according to plan. In fact, practically everything goes awry.
While clearly for more mature audiences, Tale of Tales still features many of the fairytale messages that people read to their children before going to sleep. Humans can be greedy, selfish, and deceiving, which is exactly what is displayed here. Even the most kind of people can fall victim to such traits. However, now it's depicted for an adult audience. Since this is a fairytale, we know exactly how these narratives are structured and what is to come in the conclusion. However, Garrone doesn't hide this fact, but rather, embraces it fully. He makes the revelations feel more enjoyable, and less like plot twists. This is primarily done with the use of dark comedy, which is established from the very first few minutes. There are an abundance of good laughs to be found throughout, as even the most predictable of gags are executed with such vigor, that it just works. King of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel) in particular delivers on the laughs as a sex-crazed authoritative figure. Tale of Tales does a marvelous job in mixing incredibly dark humor with light elements.
Thus far, it must sound like I absolutely loved Garrone's newest film. While I do like it, that isn't to say that it doesn't have its own set of flaws. The choice to physically intertwine the stories is a good one, although the places where Garrone decides to cut from one to the next makes for a really messy plot structure. Just when you're starting to get invested in a particular story, we're brought to the next, making it often feel a bit too "all over the place." It does this so often that it seems as if it forgets where it left off when we finally do return. The majority of the stories remain open-ended by the film's conclusion. Even if this happens to be true to the original story structure, it doesn't hold up well in a feature film, where it feels anti-climactic. I usually like ambiguous endings, but Tale of Tales simply feels unfinished.
There are an array of fun performances to explore in Tale of Tales, including the likes of Salma Hayek as the Queen of Longtrellis, Vincent Cassel as the King of Strongcliff, and Toby Jones as the King of Highhills. Hayek brings what can certainly be considered the most serious role in the film, as she's willing to do anything to have a child of her own. She's often portrayed as cold and heartless, but she's willing to make any sacrifice for her child. It's an absorbing role that truly immerses us in her world of despair. Cassel is hilarious, especially in his introduction. He plays a perverted king that is tricked into believing that two ugly sisters are young, beautiful women. This ultimately leads him down a road that is sure to punish him for his shallow nature. Meanwhile, Jones introduces an incredibly nuanced performance that incorporates an abundance of humor that contrasts the more raunchy comedy brought by Cassel.
Garrone does wonders with the visual style of Tale of Tales, which incorporates the fantastical and the live-action to perfection. It often feels like we're watching a storybook unfolding before our eyes, especially as we're given the master shots of a given environment. The color palette and costumes are lush, as they aid in truly immersing the audience in this universe of fairy tales. If Tale of Tales doesn't completely transport you into Garrone's world, then you simply aren't watching the same film. Even if the stories don't completely capture you, the visuals will absolutely absorb your attention. Even the smallest of details in the creature design look great and fit into the overall world to which they belong.
Even though the film is unbalanced and a bit sloppy, Garrone has introduced us to a fantastical world that can occasionally be quite enchanting. The tales themselves are rather engaging, although the screenplay never quite seems able to remain focused. While all of the stories ultimately tie into a single narrative, the conclusion feels undeniably lacking to a point where it feels unfinished. Nevertheless, Garrone's storybook-esque environments and a strong sense of humor are what truly make this a tale worth experiencing, even despite its issues. While every casting decision is spot-on here, the placement of Vincent Cassel and Toby Jones in particular is quite remarkable. Tale of Tales is a wild adventure with more cheers than jeers. Recommended.
Tale of Tales played at AFI FEST 2015 presented by Audi on November 7th and November 9th.