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“Fairy tales” is the nice name we give to feral tales. What could be less fairylike than diabolical stories in which little children lost in woods are captured by witches or a little girl is devoured by a wolf still digesting her granny? Tale of Tales, written and directed by Matteo Garrone, the shape-shifting Italian auteur who followed Gomorrah (neo-realist crime drama) with Reality (Fellini-esque media satire), is an opulently rumbustious three-decker of macabre fantasy fables.
Giambattista Basile (1566-1632), fairy-tale anthologist, furnished all three stories: from the king slain in deep-sea combat with a monster to the princess forced to marry an ogre to the ugly sisters transformed by love and death. Though he intercuts the plots, Garrone bravely declines to interlink them, or to signpost links. It’s for us to search out shared themes and meanings; to intuit the script’s subliminal symposium about greed, lust, love, yearning and the uncontrolled raging of that eternal thunderstorm — that war between positives and negatives — called human passion.
Beauty and ugliness may be a beholder’s choices, but obsession is something over which we have no choice. And as for rulers and ruled, who says a monarch in thrall to a passion is freer, or more powerful, than the subject who holds that passion’s reins?
The film is Marxist mischief, you could say, or crypto-Marxist. But mischief is fun and so is Marx, provided you sprinkle a little Groucho in with the Karl. Garrone recognises the anarchy and delirium in the fairy-tale tradition, and that anarchy and delirium, properly orchestrated, can do us good. (If we can’t dream to abundance or excess, what’s the point of dreaming?)
The menu here is libertine allegorising, royally prepared: a sea monster’s heart cooked by a virgin for a queen; a king’s pet flea, bred on blood, growing gigantic; a crone flaying herself to become a beauty. Add four good actors without a nationality in common — Salma Hayek, Toby Jones, Vincent Cassel, John C. Reilly — to prove again that fairy tales were the first, best and most enduringly meaningful form of globalism.