“Every new life calls for a life to be lost. The equilibrium of the world must be maintained.”
It’s almost a cliché concept to explain at this point, but traditional fairy tales are not the saccharine Disney romances they’re often believed to be. Fairy tales are often horrifically brutal stories of otherworldly magic meant to warn real world people, often children, about the dangers of human follies like lust, greed, selfishness, or curiosity. It isn’t often that an authentic-feeling, appropriately brutal fairy tale makes to the big screen. It’s even rarer that it’d be live-action and an original property, rather than an adaptation of a Brothers Grimm or a Hans Christian Andersen tale. Tale of Tales is a once-in-a-lifetime gem in the way it not only fills this requirement, but also excels as an intricately detailed piece of high art & cinematic finery.
I didn’t expect to see a more exquisite, idiosyncratic work than Hail, Caesar! all year, but Tale of Tales might’ve blown it out of the water. It’s like The Fall, Pan’s Labyrinth, and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover all rolled into one hideous fairy tale directed by Cronenberg in his prime. It’s beautiful, morbidly funny, brutally cold, everything you could ask for from a not-all-fairy-tales-are-for-children corrective. It’s sometimes necessary to remind yourself of the immense wonder & dreamlike stupor a great movie can immerse you in and Tale of Tales does so only to stab you in the back with a harsh life lesson (or three) once you let your guard down. This is ambitious filmmaking at its most concise & successful, never wavering from its sense of purpose or attention to craft. I’d be extremely lucky to catch a better-looking, more emotionally effective work of cinematic fantasy before 2016 comes to a close. Or ever, really.
The film opens with Selma Hayek & John C. Reilly sitting as the king & queen of a fantasy realm kingdom. Hayek is perfectly regal on the throne while Reilly feels plucked from an especially expensive episode of Wishbone, recalling his blissfully clueless husband role in We Need to Talk about Kevin. There’s a strain on their relationship and, thus, the kingdom as it’s revealed that the couple cannot conceive a child as a future heir. Advised by an old, wizardly fella who lives in a cave, the royal couple addresses this problem by slaying a sea beast & eating its heart after it’s cooked by a virgin. The trick works & the queen carries her pregnancy to term over the course of a single night. And that’s when things get weird.
I reveal this plot detail only to illustrate just how varied & far-reaching the territory Tale of Tales covers can be. The tale of the sea monster’s heart is just one facet of just one story that continues to spiral out from there over the course of the film. All told, there are three tales covering three adjacent kingdoms that give this film its shape. Inexplicably, the Hayek & Reilly royalty aren’t even the most interesting characters of the bunch. Tale of Tales is crawling with witches, ogres, giant insects, and the like that all make magic feel just as real and as dangerous as it does in The Witch, albeit with a lavish depiction of wealth in its costume & set design the latter can’t match in its more muted imagery. The three tales told here all stand separately strong & immaculate on their own, but also combine to teach its characters/victims (and, less harshly, its audience) about the dangers & evils of self-absorption. Each character featured here suffers a hideous fate because of their own obsessive selfishness. And if there’s any who don’t, they likely suffer at the hands of others’, especially the ones who supposedly love them.
I urge you not to watch the trailer to this film if you can avoid it. It both spoils way too much of the plot(s) that you’re better off discovering on your own and completely misreads the tone of the film as a whole. Tale of Tales fearlessly alternates between the grotesque & the beautiful, the darkly funny & the cruelly tragic. Its cinematography as well as its set & costume design will make you wonder how something so delicately pretty can be so willing to get so spiritually ugly at the drop of a hat (or a sea beast’s heart). Don’t be fooled when the film threatens to devolve into modernist showboating with its explicit gore or its exploitative lesbian make-outs in the early proceedings. It’s very much in the tradition of fairy tales in their purest form, immense beauty, cruelty, warts, and all. I highly recommend lending it your full attention & willing imagination, especially if you have the chance to watch it on the big screen. You’ll both love & loathe the places it takes you.