I’m going to break my own rules to try and keep this spoiler-free, since very few people reading this will have seen it.
I saw Tale of Tales late in its theatrical run at a nearly-empty Prince Charles Cinema – probably a fortnight after it opened. It was one of those many many films I’ve seen that are like fireflies in the UK film marketplace, burning with a kind of brilliance somewhere off in a dark corner where only those who aren’t blinded by the latest blockbuster can see them. It’s not hard to understand why films like this aren’t huge commercial successes no matter how well-received they might be critically, and Tale of Tales was not exactly lauded to the heavens. It’s too complex and too weird to really sell to a mass public, with no surrounding franchise to build a fanbase, and no sufficiently A-list actor to generate traction that way. I myself walked out of the cinema feeling ambivalent, and so unwilling to leap onto social media and go to bat for it the way I’ve done for some other fireflies like Mustang and Love and Friendship. Nor did I feel this was an obviously important film for processing our modern world like Grandma, Our Brand is Crisis, and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. So why, you wonder, is this film getting a substantial treatment here when none of those films did?
The simple reason is that Tale of Tales has stuck with me over the intervening couple of months, as I turn my mind back to it again and again trying to tease out what I think it’s about and what significance each of the substantial story beats has. It is a film that is comfortable with not explaining itself and assuming that its audience will keep up. That extends especially to the endings, all of which feel weirdly truncated, because each of the three main plotlines ends fairly immediately after the most obvious plot action is resolved, leaving no space for a real denouement. It’s amazing how reliant we are on that last couple of minutes of wrapping things up to feel satisfied – think about the ending of Casablanca if it had ended with Ilsa and Victor boarding the plane instead of carrying for that extra minute where Renault and Rick have just a few lines of dialogue to show how the experience has changed them – Renault throwing away the bottle of Vichy Water, and the famous last lines about the new phase of their friendship. These little capstones close the drama. In some ways these capstones are the characters within the fiction acknowledging the end of things, and the absence of that acknowledgement in Tale of Tales is disquieting.
The simplest way to explain this is that Tale of Tales isn’t meant to be passively consumed. I think it’s a film expecting its audience to bring their understanding of Fairy Stories and actively participate in the storytelling in the film. It requires the audience to embrace the magical elements, and to make their own inferences about character motivation. And this is what I’ve been trying to do in the time that’s elapsed. In a way that’s the point of Art ™. This isn’t a comfortable pastiche recycling things I’ve seen a million times before. I haven’t got an intuitive and deep understanding of the genre constructions, because there isn’t properly a suite of genre films for this to fit amongst (Blancanieves is the closest that occurs). The difficulties don’t obscure that somehow this film drilled through my jaded cinematic shell, so that I’m still puzzling over it months later, when many films don’t even fully occupy me while I’m watching them.
I don’t know whether this is an endorsement. It’s perhaps more of a suggestion. Do try this film on, and love it or hate it, I think you’ll agree that it’s singular.