Finally, A Fairytale With Teeth
Last year I planned to write a book of strange fairytale variations, having been commissioned to write such a tale for a new collection, which I enjoyed immensely. After suffering through Kenneth Branagh’s ghastly ‘Cinderella’ for research purposes my intention was to return to the roots of tales and darken them, keeping the strange logic that runs through early stories.
Meanwhile, at the Cannes Film Festival this year one of the big winners was Matteo Garrone, who in a season dominated by grittily realistic films, directed ‘Tale of Tales’, a portmanteau film based on the folk myths collected and published by the 16th-century Neapolitan poet and scholar Giambattista Basile as ‘Pentamerone’, a five-volume collection aggregating 50 fantastical stories full of ogres, witches and assorted creatures.
It imagines three kingdoms and their rulers, each with a strange tale to tell. Toby Jones is a kindly king who holds a tournament, the winner of which will be allowed to marry his daughter. Salma Hayek is a childless queen advised by a sorcerer to eat the heart of a sea-monster if she wishes to become pregnant. And Vincent Cassel is a corrupt king who woos a crone thinking her to be a young girl. It will come as no surprise to hear that none of these desires turns out well for those involved.
Inspirations come from the dark originals of Ovid, Perrault, Grimm, Angela Carter, Pasolini, Bruegel and even a touch of Python – but the stories have no traditional sense of structure as we know it because they deliver something different to what we expect. The tourney doesn’t yield a prince, the queen doesn’t lose her child, and it is not the king’s crone who suffers a nasty fate for her deception but her sister. Everything feels wrong knotted yet entirely logical – because the point, of course, is not to teach nice Disney lessons about being kind but to show what happens when you’re blinded by selfishness. Disney overlooked Basile but the brothers Grimm were big fans, and you can see why.
‘Tale of Tales has some astonishingly gruesome moments, and images of exquisite beauty. It is already being called ‘a masterpiece of black-comic bad taste and a carnival of transgression’, as well as one of the most beautiful films made in years. A British-Italian production from the ever-inventive Jeremy Thomas, it’s a remarkable achievement – but in the UK we’ll have to wait for nearly a year before it’s shown. Make a note!