The Queen of Longtrellis (Salma Hayek) sits stony-faced with the King (John C. Reilly) and the members of their court as they are entertained by jesters and circus performers, and everyone is really enjoying themselves - except for her. When one of the performers reveals herself to be pregnant, it's too much and she rushes from the room, down the corridor to her bedchamber where she smashes up the room and collapses sobbing in a heap. The King tries to comfort her, but it's no use, all she wanted from their union was a baby and she did not conceive, but what if there was some supernatural means to assist her? What if a Necromancer (Franco Pistoni) were to suggest the King slaughters a sea monster and she consumes its heart?
Would that do the trick? Or would there be complications? This being based on a fairy tale of some centuries past, you can bet there would be, as there would in the other two tales brought to the screen by director Matteo Garrone. Previously he had been known for his unflinching looks at modern Italian life, and that had accumulated a following across the globe, buy what were we to make of him entering the fantasy realm which did not appear to be that apt a fit for his talents? As it turned out, too many audiences found this choice too difficult to get used to, but if you were more attuned to the folk tales of old then you would understand what he was trying to achieve and be able to judge his success.
It was certainly clear from the tales he chose that he regarded these enduring stories as primarily accounts of obsession taken to degrees both absurd and harrowing as every important character was caught up in some goal that appeared to be beyond their reach, and even when it was not there were complications that soured the bliss they felt they were entitled to should they achieve their aims. These tales were drawn from what was seen as the first book to truly collect and set down these ancient moral lessons in the guise of entertainments, penned by Giambattista Basile who was hugely influential in this field, with many who came after following his lead by retelling the likes of Cinderella, Puss in Boots or Rapunzel, just three examples of what he helped to sustain.
Garrone was not interested in those famous instances of Basile's work, however, he preferred to adapt three of the most obscure and in each case, least forgiving efforts, which for most audiences would leave them in unfamiliar territory, and if you were familiar you would have to accept the alterations he had made to better tie them together into a movie. Each of the trio was edited to intertwine with the other two, so just as you were getting used to one there would be a switch and you were off into another narrative, either Hayek's troubles with her pregnancy, Toby Jones as a different King who becomes enchanted with a flea which he feeds as a pet, or Vincent Cassel as a priapic monarch who makes the mistake of courting a lovely young thing he is too lust-crazed to twig is actually two very elderly sisters (Shirley Henderson and Hayley Carmichael, both heavily made-up).
Some found humour in the rich ironies such things brought up, yet there was a chill about all three tales that tended to go against the supposedly lighter aspects. Maybe they were funnier in the seventeenth century, but a hard, steely element to these observations of humanity's foibles was never far away, and in spite of some broad playing from some of the cast an uncanny atmosphere made this less pantomime and more alien. If Garrone believed his versions would show up and appeal to the modern day audience he reckoned without very few feeling a connection to what was after all a pretty remote form of storytelling, which could be seen as safe for anybody in other hands yet was of course intended not for children exclusively in their original form, something that was not the case as the centuries moved forward. To that end, a reclaiming of fairy tales as something more forbidding and downright strange, the sheer oddness of what the director brought could be judged a success of sorts, though you wondered how receptive the viewers of the third millennium would be. Their loss if they didn't "get" it, but our loss as a society if we neglected these tales however they were served up. Music by Alexandre Desplat.