Two movies based on fairy tales open this week: the sequel no one wanted to Snow White and the Huntsman, and Tale of Tales, a cruel, dissonant adaptation of one of the oldest extant folk-story collections, by the Italian director of Gomorrah. Set them side-by-side and the differences are stark. You couldn’t ask for a better illustration of corporate Hollywood dull-wittedness.
The only reason to subject yourself to The Huntsman: Winter’s War, a mush of Game of Thrones and Disney’s Frozen with CGI that looks uncannily like CGI, is Emily Blunt, who gives the nearest thing I’ve seen in an American movie to a kabuki performance.
Blunt plays Freya, the sister of the first film’s villain, Ravenna (Charlize Theron), who begins all melty-eyed and swoony and then transforms — after losing a child and a lover under horrific circumstances — into a sort of Snow Queen. Freya turns the landscape to ice, moves into an ice castle, and trains her soldiers — acquired as impressionable children — to make war, not love. Never love. Love, she declares, is a lie, a trick played on the foolish and the weak. This puts a damper on the smoldering passion of her best soldiers, Eric the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain).
But enough about them — they’re boring and too old for their parts. I’d say Chastain has outgrown bland-ingénue roles like Sara, except she’d never have stooped to play them when she was young. Big paychecks are turning her into a dull girl. The gifted comic actors Nick Frost and Rob Brydon get their heads transposed onto dwarf bodies and the metaphor, though politically incorrect, is hard to ignore. They look like stunted giants.
I should have said that this is a sequel and a prequel. The long first chapter takes place before Snow White and the Huntsman, at which point the film jumps ahead seven years to after Snow White has defeated Ravenna in battle. But Ravenna’s powerful mirror has disappeared, and whoever has the mirror has the power the mirror bestows, and are you bored reading this? I’m nodding off typing it. When Theron oozed out of the mirror like the T-1000 and started zapping Hemsworth and Chastain and cackling about love making them pathetically weak, I wondered how grown-ups could do this stuff and look at their own reflections: Mirror, mirror on the wall: Who’s the most ridiculous actor of them all?
Not Emily Blunt. She is, as I’ve said, remarkable. Her normally ivory skin has been rendered even more lucent. Her eyes are like pale sapphires. But no makeup or lighting could do what she does with the simplest of means. Remaining almost perfectly still, she conveys with a tilt of her head and the odd semi-quaver the volcanic emotions within. Her sadness is so deep that you almost believe the stupid conceit that Freya wants to save her child soldiers from the cruel lie that is love by making them automaton killers.
The Italian-made Tale of Tales is in English, but its visual language feels abrasively unfamiliar. Its Italian settings are ancient and foreboding — primordial. Its magic is rough. The film is an adaptation by director Matteo Garrone of the work of Giambattista Basile, who, before his death in 1632, published moralistic tales of witches and ogres and imperiled princesses based on folk stories he’d collected. His use of Neapolitan dialect remains fascinating to linguists, which isn’t particularly germane to the movie, but I did the research and might as well use it.
Maybe it is germane. Having read the book (in Nancy L. Canepa’s marvelously accessible translation), I know that Garrone has made the stories even harsher and more unsettling than the originals — and captured in the process something otherworldly in Basile’s language. The director has chosen three of the many stories and brusquely jumps among them. Those stories don’t cohere but the themes do.
Tale of Tales, as I see it, is held together by the chimerical nature of flesh and, in particular, skin. Garrone opens with the plight of a king and queen (John C. Reilly and Salma Hayek) who can’t conceive a child. A gangly, cadaverous necromancer (Franco Pistoni) says that grave sacrifices will have to be made, but that there is a solution: The king must cut out the heart of a sea monster. It must be cooked by a virgin (who must be alone) and must be eaten by the queen. He does not say that both the queen and the virgin will both become pregnant. The story resumes years later, when the boys from the queen and servant girl turn out to have the same pale skin and snowy-white hair (they are played by twins) and form a bond that drives the queen to try to separate them — at any cost.
The dragon killing is especially startling to those of us bored by the cheap miracles of CGI in such Hollywood epics as The Huntsman: Winter’s War. The king lumbers through the murk at the bottom of the sea in his clanky, 17th-century iron diving suit and finds the giant serpent peacefully asleep. He — and we — barely see the creature through his helmet, though its agony when skewered is palpable. The queen eats the huge heart — pulsating even when cooked — in a shot that is plain and disgusting and plainly disgusting. Having endured so much, it is hard to know why she begrudges her son his relationship with his twin from another kin. But thereby hangs a tale — a tragic one.
The other tales in Tale of Tales — both with kings — have even more to do with skin. A ruler (Toby Jones) raises a flea until it’s human-sized, flays it after its (sad) death, and offers the hand of his daughter (Bebe Cave) to the man who guesses the origin of the pelt. Alas, that man is a huge, bald, savage-looking ogre with a keen sense of smell — and he knows from pelts, because he hunts both wild animals and, evidently, people. Perhaps it’s a metaphor: One should not secure a husband on the basis of skin.
In the third, most vivid story, a randy monarch (Vincent Cassel) hears the gorgeous singing voice of an elderly peasant woman (Hayley Carmichael) who lives with her sister (Shirley Henderson), and, thinking she’s as youthful as her voice, woos her through her front door. What happens next is upending and, finally, devastating. The creases in her skin are taped over to keep the king from discerning her age in the sack, but the morning light is unkind. She is rejected — and then magically rejuvenated. The plot turns not on her but on her simpleminded sister, who goes about acquiring her new skin in the grisliest manner imaginable.
Tale of Tales is patchy and often jarringly unpleasant. It’s not a fairy tale for kids — unless they’ve been watching Game of Thrones and have developed a fondness for flaying. But I don’t think Garrone’s cruelty is gratuitous. As Gomorrah suggests, he’s not by nature a moralist but a tragic ironist. People die and rot with their hopes intact. Above all, he understands the uses of classic fairy tales: why they were conceived and passed on, before Hollywood came along and made them skin-deep. They were — and are — a means of demonstrating the limits of earthly desire, of going literally and metaphorically under the skin.