The stuff of nightmares – “Tale of Tales” review

 

I’d been looking forward to seeing Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales for quite a while, since I first read about its appearance at last year’s Cannes film festival.

It is, as the opening titles make clear, “loosely” based on the fairy tales of Neapolitan poet Giambattista Basile, originally published in the 1630’s.

Basile may not be well known to many readers these days, yet the Brothers Grimm greatly admired him, and he was a big influence also on Hans Christian Andersen. His versions of famous stories like Rapunzel and Cinderella are the earliest known.

This is Garrone’s first English language film (his previous movies include Gomorrah), and in one interview I read he expressed some misgivings about this, whilst acknowledging how its Hollywood cast (Salma Hayek, John C. Reilly, Toby Jones, Vincent Cassel) made funding and distribution easier to obtain (the film apparently cost over $14 million to make). But anyone expecting a Hollywood movie will be disappointed – this is very much a continental European – and specifically Italian – film, and watching it I felt the shades of Antonioni, Pasolini & Fellini hovering in the background.

The plot is a portmanteau of three different stories, set in three different, fantastical kingdoms, and the film moves between them rather than telling them each in turn:

In The Queen, the titular monarch is played by Salma Hayek, who so longs for a child that she invokes the help of a necromancer (played with ingratiating creepiness by Franco Pistoni, who, like many of the supporting cast, looks like he has stepped straight out of an Arthur Rackham or Brian Froud illustration – or perhaps, more savagely, something by Goya, whose Los Caprichos prints  were apparently a big influence on the look of the film). “Violent desires such as yours can only be satisfied by violence” he tells her, and, though she acquires a son and heir, the price is indeed bloody.

In The Flea, Toby Jones is the muddle-headed king of Altomonte, more interested in looking after his pet flea (which ends up growing to monstrous proportions) than his teenage daughter, Violet, whose Mills & Boon fantasies about a handsome, courageous husband are seriously dashed (along with quite a few skulls).

And in The Two Old Women, a lustful king, played by – who else? – Vincent Cassel (whom we first encounter enjoying the company of a couple of naked lesbians) is entranced by the singing of a washerwoman below his castle walls, not realising that she and her sister are old and ugly – though this doesn’t stop one of them from tricking her way into his bed, in a scene that is both cringe-making and horribly funny. Then she actually does become young – through the intervention of a witch (played with much otherworldly chuckling by the wonderful Kathryn Hunter) – and then things get really nasty…

The film looks beautiful – much of it was made on location in Italy, in such places as Castel del Monte, and Roccascalegna, and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky makes the blue skies and white walls blaze out of the screen. Likewise, the costumes are ravishing, and some of the scenes – Salma Hayek eating a heart, or an undersea battle with an albino sea monster – unforgettable. But you probably can’t weave together three strange stories like this, and tell them with such ambition, without a few strands coming loose – and there were moments when I felt Garrone’s reach exceeded his grasp. The impact of Basile’s dark morality tales is lessened by some longueurs, and, though God knows I’m not advocating Michael Bay-levels of frantic editing, perhaps a bit of judicious cutting here and there might have helped focus the story(ies)?

I’m sure many will argue that such slow pacing is precisely the point of this kind of film-making, and Garrone himself says, ‘Don’t try to understand it, just feel it’. And despite my niggles I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend you see it if you can – it may well divide opinion, but at its best it’s both sumptuous and spellbinding, and, like the most vivid of dreams, will linger long in your memory.

It’s elemental… Water

Andy Scott's magnificent Kelpies at Grangemouth

The Kelpies by Andy Scott, Grangemouth, Scotland (perphotography.co.uk). Kelpies are shapeshifters or water-nymphs from Scottish folklore.

Thought I might try writing a series of posts on the four elements – earth, fire, air and water – and how they feature in folklore. So I’ve decided to start with water, for no other reason than that some of my favourite mythological creatures spring from there – undines, rusalky, selkies, kelpies, good old mermaids (and mermen) – there are tons, and I wondered where it came from, this belief that, lurking in the deep, are our shadow selves, our lost selves, our reflections.

We’re both attracted and repelled by water – by lakes, rivers, the sea – and though it gives us life, and we love to play in it, and travel on it, we also know that it is a terrifying and ultimately unknowable place, dangerous and unpredictable. It has to be respected.

In Beowulf, the monster Grendel and his mother live at the bottom of a terrifying lake – “blood-stained and turbulent” – where Grendel retreats to die after Beowulf wrenches off his arm, and where Beowulf himself plunges to do battle with his mother:

…many wondrous creatures

Harassed him as he swam; many sea-serpents

with savage tusks tried to bore through his corslet…

Beowulf’s great sword, Hrunting, is useless against his foe, and after fighting with her hand-to-hand he finally manages to decapitate her with a supernatural sword he finds in her lair, and in so doing the lake, which had been full of “strange sea-dragons… and water-demons” is cleansed, “purged of its impurity”.

Danish Lake

Not all creatures of the deep are as deadly as Grendel’s mother, though many are ambiguous. There are several tales of mermaids (“sea-morgans” in the West Country and Brittany, “selkies” or seal-women in Scotland) who are caught by crafty fishermen to be their wives. Though the details differ, the basic story tends to run thus: a lone mermaid is surprised while dancing or “passing her shapely fingers through her bewitching ringlets”, and relieved of her “mantle” – her mermaid’s skin – without which she cannot return to her underwater home. She marries the fisherman, and bears him children, but then one day by chance she discovers her skin, which he has carefully hidden, and “…no sooner did she grasp it than she laughed so loudly that her laugh was heard all over the village… In an instant she regained her former youth and beauty, she no longer cared for husband and children, and swifter than the velocity of the March winds she returned joyfully to her beloved Tirnanog on the blue rim of the western ocean.” (The Kerry Mermaid)

Likewise, the rusalky, of Russian folklore, are beautiful water-nymphs, who at Christmastime leave the lakes and rivers that are their home to dance and sing. But, like the Sirens of Greek mythology, to hear their song means your doom, for you lose your sanity – and your soul.

In Robert Aickman’s short story, The Fetch, the protagonist, Brodick Leith, realises that his old Scottish family is haunted by a carlin – a wraith – who appears, like a banshee, whenever a relative – either by blood or by marriage – is about to die.

Mason, the manager of Brodick’s country estate, tells him of how she arises from out of the nearby sea loch, and Brodick recalls seeing her when his mother died:

“‘I saw no face,’ I said.

‘If you’d seen that, you wouldn’t be here now,’ said Mason.”

At one point, as he descends in the lift from his London flat, having kissed his wife goodbye, Brodick sees the carlin in the adjoining lift, ascending to his floor. In his desperation, he presses the emergency button, but the lift gets jammed, and by the time he returns to the flat, his wife, Shulie, has disappeared:

“The first thing I saw… was a liquid trail in from the street up to the gate of the other lift. Not being his hour,the caretaker had still to mop it up, even though it reeked of seabed mortality.

Shulie and I lived on the eighth floor. I ran all the way up. The horrible trail crossed our landing from the lift gate to under out front door…”

Of course, water is not only the source of strange or demonic beings, but can also be a protection against them – the Devil cannot cross running water, it is said. And a story from Watchet in Somerset tells of how its patron saint, St Decuman, was beheaded by local pagans, and where his head fell, a spring appeared, which was afterwards said to have healing properties. Incidentally, St Decuman wasn’t unduly perturbed by this apparent misfortune – he just picked up his head, put it back on his shoulders, and went back home to Wales!

Watchet (St. Decuman)

St Decuman’s church, Watchet, Somerset (photo: westcountrychurches.co.uk)

Sources:

The Anglo-Saxon World (Kevin Crossley-Holland)

A Treasury of Irish Folklore (editor: Padraic Colum)

Gramarye – the Journal of the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales & Fantasy, Issue 4

The Enchanted World – the Book of Christmas (Brendan Lehane)

The Wine-Dark Sea (Robert Aickman, collection)

The Folklore of Somerset (Kingsley Palmer)