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)

 

“X” at the Royal Court – review

 

Yesterday I went along to the Royal Court Theatre here in London to see “X”, a new play by playwright Alistair McDowall.

I blush to admit that, in 18 years of living in the capital, this was my first ever trip to the Royal Court, which has been an important centre for new writing for sixty years.

The theatre’s really easy to get to as it sits right next to Sloane Square tube station, at the top of the King’s Road, and as well as its main auditorium, the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, has a smaller studio space (the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs). There is also a bookshop and a bar and cafe, cosily tucked away beneath street level (I always like places like this, their secrets hidden under the paving slabs – it’s one of the reasons i love the Curzon Soho).

As I receive regular emails from the Royal Court on upcoming productions, I was intrigued when I saw the trailer for “X” (see above), and read some of the accompanying interviews – a play inspired by dystopian Seventies sci-fi? Count me in!

In fact “X” is not quite all it seems.

The set-up is this: five astronauts are on a research base on Pluto, and by the time the story opens they are already strung out and paranoid, and not surprisingly – the ship supposed to take them home after their tour of duty is months late, and Earth isn’t responding to their messages. From the crew’s conversations, we gather that Earth itself is a wasteland, one where the flora and fauna have mysteriously perished, and Mankind is making a new home for itself on the other planets of the solar system (“Mars is full of blonde Americans. It’s like they’re building the master race out there”).

All of this made me think of classic films like “Silent Running” and “Soylent Green”, with their themes of overpopulation and ecological catastrophe – and when “X”‘s characters start seeing a young girl roaming about the station – a young girl who couldn’t possibly be there – and realise that the base’s clock is faulty (“Everything’s linked to Earth through the main clock. And the main clock’s wrong”), I was reminded also of Duncan Jones’s “Moon”, and settled in for a nice couple of hours of psychological horror.

But though “X” delivers its fair share of scary moments – and full credit to the design team of Merle Hensel, Lee Curran, Nick Powell and Tal Rosner, whose aural and visual effects were superb – it gradually becomes apparent that the way McDowall is playing with time and memory – and identity – is about more than just shocks. He begins, slowly and brilliantly, to turn the story inside out, leaving us at first bewildered, but then moved, by what we are seeing (or think we’re seeing), and in its second Act “X” unspools into a tale above all about grief and loss (if you’re familiar with Stanislaw Lem’s “Solaris” – which has been adapted several times for the screen – you will recognise a certain similarity in tone, though “X” is also very much its own creature).

The actors have to work really hard to sustain the tension, including one bravura sequence where Jessica Raine (as Gilda, the base’s second-in-command) and James Harkness (as Clark, the resident techie) spout apparent nonsense at one another for several minutes. It’s not easy to make someone like Gilda – who is constantly on the verge of bursting into tears, and eats cereal out of the box and chews her hair like a little girl – a sympathetic character, but Raine manages it, and holds our attention throughout (even if you do occasionally want to give her a good shake). The rest of the cast are likewise excellent, and if I occasionally strained to hear the odd bit of dialogue, this didn’t affect my enjoyment (and besides, I bought a copy of the playscript so I can check it again). Director Vicky Featherstone and her team provided a powerful and clever afternoon’s theatre, and ensured that I left my first visit to the Royal Court wanting to come back, and soon.

The Truth Is (Still) Out There – disinterring “The X-Files”

 

When The X-Files made its debut on BBC Two in 1993, I was a young student, living in digs in a small town in Sussex, and still had cheekbones and all my own hair. My friends and I watched it on our little portable black-and-white TV, and at one point it scared me so much I couldn’t take out the rubbish (one of my allotted domestic tasks) as going out after dark after watching an episode was a no-no.

23 years on, The X-Files is back, with its original cast and production team, and I’m somehow still here. The first of the new episodes, My Struggle, aired on Channel Five here in the UK on Monday night, and like a lot of people I was keen to see if it had aged better than me.

Channel Five prefaced the episode with one of those “documentaries” that look like they’ve been edited by a goldfish, in which everyone goes on about how great it is to work together again – though it was interesting to hear show creator Chris Carter acknowledge how much the world has changed since the show went off air in 2002, and how that might affect the new season.

The answer, on last night’s evidence, was: not much. Even the title sequence was unaltered, Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny’s younger selves appearing on their old FBI ID’s (that’ll never pass muster with the authorities if they try applying for a Young Person’s Railcard).

The story, too, was familiar fare: shady characters from the secret government were running a programme to combine human and alien DNA – had been since Roswell! – and conservative talk show host Tad O’Malley brought Agents Mulder and Scully back together again to investigate, introducing them to Sveta, a traumatised young woman who claimed to be the victim of multiple abductions / experiments.

The pace was frenetic, and it felt to me like Carter was trying to cram too much into this season opener: there was a hurried sense of, “Let’s re-establish the setting and characters, then we can get on with the rest of the story”. That said, I was pleased to see The X-Files back in its old Vancouver home (digitally altered to look like Washington DC) – I always thought those misty pine forests of British Columbia were a wonderfully atmospheric backdrop for the early episodes.

Anderson and Duchovny’s performances were perhaps a little uncertain, but that’s only to be expected perhaps after such a long time away (is that a slight paunch Duchovny has there? Bless!), and they were soon back to wielding flashlights like true pro’s, and it was good also to see Mitch Pileggi (as Skinner) and William B. Davis (as the Smoking Man) make their return. The idea of a conservative, Bill O’Reilly-type having some kind of hotline to the Truth was somewhat worrying – but I’ve heard good things about the rest of the season, and personally I always preferred the “Monster of the Week” episodes anyway – the best of them were perfect little horror movies – and sometimes found the endless conspiracy theories about alien invasion tiresome.

But am I glad it’s back? Of course I am – it’s The X-Files! It has survived, and so have I, just about. I still miss the Lone Gunmen, though – but you can’t have everything.

Twelfth Night, Odin & the King of the Bean

The Bean King (The King Drinks) - Jacob Jordaens

The Bean King (The King Drinks), by Jacob Jordaens (1638)

Today, the 5th January, marks Twelfth Night, a date that, if they think about it at all, most people nowadays associate with two things – the Shakespeare play of the same name, and taking down the Christmas decorations.

But in pre-industrial Britain, the celebrations of Christmas once lasted the full Twelve Days, although there was some disagreement as to whether Christmas Day itself was counted as one of these – if it wasn’t, then the 6th January, Epiphany, became the Twelfth Day, though the 5th January was still called Twelfth Night, confusingly. The introduction of the Gregorian calendar in Britain, in 1752, made matters more complicated still, as many people persisted in marking the old dates rather than the new ones. It is for this reason that many wassailing traditions in England are still held on January 17th – Old Twelfth Night.

What’s certain is that Christmastide was once regarded, across Medieval and Early Modern Europe, as a dangerous time, when Odin’s Wild Hunt rode through the sky, werewolves stalked the woods, and the dead came back to haunt the living. For all that, though, it was still no doubt a welcome break from work before the agricultural year began again on Plough Monday (the first Monday after Epiphany). People would elect an Epiphany King, or “King of the Bean” (in France the equivalent figure was called l’Abbé de la Malgouverné – the Abbot of Unreason), a “Mock King” tradition that goes back to the Roman Saturnalia, a festival held from the 17th to the 24th December, when a slave would be chosen to be King, and the usual order overturned, with men dressing as women, folk wearing animal masks, and feasting and general licentiousness prevailing.

The Mock King’s medieval descendant, the King of the Bean, was chosen by placing a bean and a pea in a cake called the Twelfth Cake. Whoever found the bean in their slice became King, and they were crowned and robed for the duration of the feast, and the woman who found the pea became the Twelfth Day Queen (if a woman found the bean, she had the right to name the King; if a man found the pea, he chose the Queen).

In France, the Twelfth Cake was called the gateau des Rois, and, when it had been cut into slices, a small child hidden under the table was asked whom each should go to. He would randomly nominate people from the assembled company until all pieces of the cake had been accounted for, and the finder of the bean became the Epiphany King.

In England, the King of the Bean ceremony has, to the best of my knowledge, long since disappeared, though Twelfth Cakes continued to be made and sold well into the Nineteenth Century, before the decline of Twelfthtide celebrations, and the increasing popularity of the Christmas cake, finally did for them.

It’s a shame, though – personally, I don’t think one should need much excuse for cake, so I’m all for reviving this particular tradition…