Once upon a time, Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone decided to make a movie in English. Not just any movie in English, though — this one weaves together three Italian fairy tales that were collected by Giambattista Basile in a book called The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones. Basile was one of the people who inspired the Brothers Grimm to collect the folk tales of Germany before it was Germany.
Once upon a time, Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone decided to make a movie in English. Not just any movie in English, though — this one weaves together three Italian fairy tales that were collected by Giambattista Basile in a book called The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones. Basile was one of the people who inspired the Brothers Grimm to collect the folk tales of Germany before it was Germany. These being pre-Disney fairy tales — shockingly, the behemoth that is the Disney corporation hasn’t always existed — don’t let the subtitle of the source fool you, because they’re dark. And I mean dark. Do not let small children watch these, whatever you do.
There are three neighboring kingdoms where the rulers all have their own difficulties. In Longtrellis, the king (John C. Reilly, Guardians of the Galaxy) and his queen (Salma Hayek) are childless, to their terrible sorrow. In Strongcliff, the king (Vincent Cassel, Black Swan) is something of a drunk and a complete womanizer. Take whatever sort of Don Juan or Dan Fielding you’re thinking of and double that. And in Highhills, the king (Toby Jones, The Hunger Games) begins to ignore his once-beloved daughter (Bebe Cave) in favor of a flea. Yes, a flea.
A mysterious man (Franco Pistoni) then arrives in Longtrellis to tell the king and queen that their problem can be easily solved. They just need to hunt down a sea monster, cut out its heart, and have it cooked by a young virgin. Then the queen just has to eat this dainty dish, and before you know it she’ll be pregnant. You can tell we’re in fairy tale land when they don’t throw him out of the castle as soon as he says the words “sea monster”.
The king of Strongcliff, meanwhile, has become enchanted by some beautiful singing he heard when he wandered away from the aftermath of an orgy he had attended. But the lovely voice doesn’t belong to a gorgeous young creature as he assumes, and he soon finds himself tangled up in the schemes of a pair of elderly sisters (Hayley Carmichael and Shirley Henderson) who want to take full advantage of the king’s infatuation before he finds out the truth.
Meanwhile, back at the flea’s castle, daughter Violet, sensing that she no longer has her father’s attention and affection, says that it’s time she had a husband, and her father agrees. But he’s actually got a scheme whereby she’ll never be able to marry because no man will be able to pass the bizarre test he has for any prospective groom — and it’s true that no man is able to manage it.
Garrone bounces us around quite a lot among these somewhat surreal stories, which are all visually stunning in their various ways, which sometimes means creepy and sometimes means just gorgeous. The castle of Highhills is particularly stark and wonderful. Sometimes, though, it also means stunning in the sense of a quick cut from a dark, shadowy cave lit only fitfully by the light of a single torch to a blindingly sunny landscape. My eyes hurt a little by the end.
I forgave the movie, though, because it was just so cool to look at despite the occasional risk of blindness. Several times the setting looks so strange and perfect as to seem fake, but it all fits perfectly into fairy tale land. I do have to take off a point for the fact that one of the story lines just stops rather than coming to any sort of end, but that still leaves a solid four out of five.
Again, it isn’t for the faint of heart. Hearts are eaten, skin is flayed, and monsters attack. Serious burns are suffered, and I admit I cringed at that part since the effects were a little too realistic there. But I’m glad to say that the ladies of the tales do seize the initiative at times rather than waiting around to be rescued, and all in all these tales are truly a feast for the imagination.