Fairy tale retellings have been a big trend in Hollywood for the past couple years. Disney in particular has embraced this fascination by rebooting many of its original animated properties into live action movies with big-name stars, like the recent Cinderella or last year’s Maleficent. The fairy tale literature based on the oldest folk tales in existence touches on universal themes in human nature, so something about those stories will always appeal to us no matter how much various Hollywood resurgences of “the fairy tale craze” might start to get tired or unoriginal. The latest fairy tale-inspired movie coming out of Cannes, The Tale of Tales starring Salma Hayek and John C. Reilly, is neither of those things and is earning great reviews for being a truly dark fairy tale for adults.
The Tale of Tales might be the darkest fairy tale we’ve seen since Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish language masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth in 2006. While the del Toro film was an original story, The Tale of Tales is based on stories from classical Neapolitan literature from the 17th century, written in Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone. The film is the English language debut of Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone, though critics are saying the movie remains heavily influenced by various eras in Italian cinema despite being in English.
You might know that the folk tales by the Brothers Grimm upon which many of Disney’s classics are based are much darker and more twisted than the animated films we’re familiar with. But that’s nothing compared to the sex, gore, and debauchery that takes place in Basile’s work, which like the Grimm fairy tales and other similar collections is more a group of tales that Basile collected and wrote down rather than a composition of his own, original work.
Garrone is best known for the 2008 organized crime drama Gomorrah, which was in Italian and won the Grand Prix at Cannes. Four years later, his movie Reality won the same prize at the festival. Given the switch to English, the stars involved, plus the popularity of fairy tale movies, The Tale of Tales will likely be Garrone’s most-watched film yet in his career once it gets distribution in the U.S.
The film follows three, vaguely interrelated tales set in the 17th century. Salma Hayek plays a barren queen who is told she will conceive a child if she eats the heart of a sea monster, which she does sans utensils. Over in a neighboring kingdom, a dummy king is distracted from finding a suitable husband for his daughter by a super-talented magic flea. In another kingdom, Vincent Cassel plays a playboy king who accidentally falls in love with an ugly old woman when he’s fooled by the sound of her beautiful voice.
“Tale of Tales dances on a razor’s edge between funny and unnerving, with sequences of shadow-spun horror rubbing up against moments of searing baroque beauty. The result is a fabulously sexy, defiantly unfashionable readymade cult item,” said a review from The Telegraph. Apart from a few moments of artistic eros — the first a shot of two court ladies consumed with passion for each other in a carriage; the second a post-orgy scene laced with naked, Felliniesque bodies — there is an underlying horror that is unnerving even for adults,” said The Hollywood Reporter. The film doesn’t seem like it’s embracing the “fairy tale” trend whatsoever, through its obscure choice of subject material and the graphic way Garrone goes about telling the stories.
So if you think you’re sick of the current fairy tale trend that Hollywood has been going crazy over with movies and shows, such as ABC’s Once Upon a Time, then Garrone’s The Tale of Tales is a good reminder of what made those original stories so weird and wonderful in the first place, as well as that they can still be adapted to film in original ways.
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