Italian director Matteo Garrone, best-known for his intricate organised crime saga Gomorrah, turns to fairy tales in this potent fantasy – which draws on the versions of folk tales set down by the Neapolitan Giambattista Basile in his Pentamerone well before the Brothers Grimm or other collectors got to them. Just as Gomorrah was about power, so this presents an array of unworthy or dangerous monarchs who inflict untold suffering on all who fall under them, mostly through monomanias of one kind or another. Even the devoted, silly princess (Bebe Cave) who survives a brush with an ogre to gain her father’s crown racks up an incidental body count of would-be rescuers without caring much and eventually trades in a bloody severed head for a throne and a mad eyeglint that suggests she’ll be no kinder than any other ruler. There are few ‘happy ever after’ endings here, as tales tend to have climaxes which owe more to Clive Barker (a madwoman insisting she be flayed alive because her sister has lied about the magic that restored her youth) than Uncle Walt.
In tone, I was reminded a little of the Eastern European fairy tale films which used to show up on the BBC children’s hour in the 1960s as Tales From Europe (bristling with communist scorn for corrupt kings) and a lot of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s parched, striking trilogy of bawdy tales – though low humour and genuine magical invention evoke Terry Gilliam and Guillermo del Toro too. In what seems a triplicate realm, three royal houses have three stories – each of which divides into two. The Queen of Longtrellis (Salma Hayek) wants a child so a tall seer (Franco Pistoni) gives her instructions which involve having the King (John C. Reilly) fight and kill a sea monster (an old-fashioned, impressive physical effect beast) so she can eat its (huge bloody) heart,which has to be cooked by a virgin. The king dies and the queen does have a son, but so does the virgin. Sixteen years later, albino lookalikes Elias (Christian Lees) and Jonah (Jonah Lees) are friends, but the Queen disapproves and splits them up, whereby lowborn Jonah goes on a quest – leaving a stream flowing from a ficus to indicate how he’s doing. Eventually, his doppelganger friend/brother has to rescue him from a cave-dwelling giant bat creature (a proto-vampire?) with a surprising identity.
The King of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassell) is a wastrel lech, introduced in what seems like a snippet from a softcore porn movie as two glamour models grope in a coach. After a chain of misunderstandings, the king is seduced by a crone (Hayley Carmichael) who magically grows young (Stacy Martin, from Nymph(o)maniac) when tended by a witch (Kathryn Hunter). Focus switches to the crone’s abandoned sister (Shirley Henderson), who hopes to pull off the same trick – with unpleasant results for all. The infantile King of Highhills (Toby Jones) becomes obsessed with a flea who grows to giant size by feeding on his blood. The thing dies and the king uses the skin in one of those win-the-hand-of-the-princess contests which attracts an ogre (Guillaume Delaunay, the monster from Victor Frankenstein) and teaches everyone a lesson about such contests.
It’s well-paced and interleaves its stories so well there are no dead spots – with many stick-in-the-mind images (the queen in a maze, fooled by her son and his friend, the plateful of big red monster heart) and moments of peril (escape from the ogre’s lair thanks to the intervention of circus folks), non sequiturs (what does that passing witch think she’s doing?), lapses in anything like logic (hey, it’s a folk tale – blame the folk) and earthy horrors.