For all the near photo-realism of today’s generation of computer-generated effects, there’s still something to be said for old-fashioned, tactile costumes and make-up, for real settings and real scenery.
Want to show an ogre? Dress up a very tall man, dress him in furs and thicken his features.
Telling a story set in Medieval castles? Use real castles, real Medieval towns.
Need albino twins for your movie? Cast real twins, dye their hair and give them contact lenses.
The Italian director Matteo Garrone took this approach in “Tale of Tales,” an adaptation of the early 17th century Neopolitan fairytales of Giambattista Basile. Though the adaptations are not literal and you’ll be hard pressed to find moral lessons in these fantasies, the film is cinematic eye candy — not as spectacular as the more fanciful works of Terry Gilliam (“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”, “The Brothers Grimm”), more on the order of Tarsem Singh (“The Fall”).
Basile’s morbid, bloody and often sexual tales pre-date the collecting of The Brothers Grimm. Garrone and screenwriter Eduordo Albinati take on three of them for their somewhat plodding two-hour-plus film.
Salma Hayek and John C. Reilly play a queen and king who cannot conceive an heir. A mysterious conjurer shows up and says all they lack is a measure “of courage and sacrifice.” Oh, and the heart of a sea monster, cooked by a lone virgin and fed to the queen.
He warns them that “Every new life calls for a life to be lost,” but the brave king dives and attacks a monster, dying in the process. The queen gets her heart, and her child, an albino boy (Jonah Lees) grows up to become transfixed by a servant’s son who is a dead ringer for him (Christian Lees). Nothing the Queen can do can keep these mismatched twins apart.
Vincent Cassel (“Mesrine,” “Eastern Promises”) plays a sexually insatiable king who becomes enchanted by the singing of two sisters, played by Shirley Henderson and Hayley Carmichael . But he hasn’t seen them. They’re both spinsters, impoverished crones.
And when he tries to court one of them, she fearfully hides this by only letting him touch her finger. He thinks she’s just being coy.
Finally, she relents and agrees to come to his bed. But that involves her sister gluing her sagging breasts into place and pulling back her wrinkles. The king isn’t fooled, is repulsed, and has her hurled out a window. But a witch takes pity on Dora and makes her young again. Not that this pays off, either.
And then there’s the king (Toby Jones) and single-father who is infatuated with fleas. He raises one to be the size of a sheep, and when his daughter (Jessie Cave) demands that he “get me a husband,” he has the flea skinned and tests each of her suitors by demanding that they identify what animal produced this pelt.
That’s how he ends up giving her to an ogre (Guillaume Delaunay).
The tales are peopled with jugglers, fire-eaters and other Medieval circus folk. Garrone reminds us, in gory detail, how violent and sexual ancient fairytales often were. This is about as suitable for “the little ones” (Basile’s own words in the title of his “Tale of Tales” collection, Il Pentamerone) as “The Huntsman–Winter’s War.”
The ambitious effects and simple Medieval-ness of the works are what recommend “Tale of Tales.” It’s fun to see this cast tossed into this milieu, even if the stories, so freely adapted and altered, don’t connect or truthfully, seem to have much point.
The two sisters one is the cleverest, the two albinos one the most unfathomable and “The Flea” the least inscrutable. See it for the eye candy, the vivid recreation of an Italian “Once upon a time,” all of it done without computers and digital fakery.
MPAA Rating: unrated, with nudity, sexual situations, graphic violence
Cast: Salma Hayek, John C. Reilly, Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones, Bebe Cave, Jonah Lees, Christian Lees
Credits: Directed by Matteo Garrone, script by Eduordo Albinati, based on the stories of Giambattista Basile . An IFC release.
Running time: 2:13