Tales of Tales

My head spun when I saw the film Tale of Tales last week and only realized afterward that it was directed by the very same Matteo Garrone who made Gomorrah in 2008.

Gomorrah (which is one of a dwindling number of features you can watch and re-watch on Netflix streaming) felt like a cinematic beating. A sprawling, Neapolitan-language gangster film set in the Naples housing projects, with “Martin Scorsese presents” splashed across it, it felt like you were tapping the same main root that Mean Streets had come from – but even more shocking in its violence, and even more unwieldy in how diffuse its several narratives are.


Salma Hayek with John C. Reilly (on left).

I liked Gomorrah (written by Garrone, Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Gianni Di Gregorio, Massimo Gaudioso, and Roberto Saviano based on Saviano’s book) just as much when I re-watched it this week as I did in the theater. Its hyper-realism feels like an urgent wake-up call, and the de-centeredness of the story something like a magazine profile of organized crime as seen by its low-level operatives, some with tragic falls, some with more subtle compromises.

Tale of Tales is based on another Neapolitan book, by the 17th Century folklorist and author Giambattista Basile. (It’s funny to think that, while the Pilgrims in Massachusetts were splitting hairs about salvation, ever fearful of witchcraft, another Christian across the ocean was writing about witchcraft and magic, committing Rapunzel and Cinderella, among others, to paper for the very first time.) Filmed in English, the script is again by Garrone, Braucci, Di Gregorio, and Gaudioso.

Tale of Tales, though I enjoyed it, is a lot harder to love, I suppose because the fairy tale setting makes my expectations go through the roof. You don’t have to tell me what the world of fairy tales is like; it’s full of witches and princesses and ogres, I know that. So you don’t get a pass if you make merely situational drama.

When I watch a fairy tale I want a Freudian slap across the face, not an exercise in trying to weave some thematic coherence out of loose-ended stories. I couldn’t help but compare it to the Jacques Demy film Donkey Skin (1970), one of his under-watched films after Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and also (true confessions) The Princess Bride. They’re all three a bit second-rate with special effects compared to their contemporaries and clearly labors of love. Donkey Skin is a tight narrative with a clear protagonist and through-line, whereas Tale of Tales talks around the through-line and makes you surmise it.

Tale of Tales 2

One of the memorable images from Tale of Tales is the (newly) young princess in a moss-covered wilderness, red on green, a palette Garrone used in Gomorrah: blood gushing from gangster’s heads onto an Astroturf patio. Like Gomorrah, Tale of Tales is gruesome and a bit moralistic. Even when you see the payoffs coming, you’re still in suspense. Garrone is the center of a circle of writers on top of their game, making stories that are clearly theirs. Even if it’s not my game, I have to say “Bravo.”

Mad Men and The Young Girls of Rochefort

Let’s all have a late ’60s spring! It’s all around us, with Mad Men back for its final season on Sunday, and, in my neighborhood, The Young Girls of Rochefort coming to BAM for a whole week starting tonight.

The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), written and directed by Jacques Demy, is so corny I can’t believe how much I love it. It has none of the tragedy of Umbrellas of Cherbourg nor the twisted fairy tale horror of Donkey Skin, which is still my favorite of his films with composer Michel Legrand. But it is unquestionably something that must be seen in a cinema. It has dance numbers and huge, colorful sets, Catherine Deneuve and her sister Françoise Dorléac, George Chakiris (better known as Nardo from West Side Story), and Gene Kelly as The American.

An ad for the final season.

An ad for the final season.

When you think of late ’60s music you think of the Jefferson Airplane or Motown or the “White Album,” but I can’t get enough of what “the squares” were doing at the time. Bachrach, Bert Kempfert, Morton Gould and His Orchestra, The Living Strings, Sinatra singing Joni Mitchell, Engelbert singing just about anything: the encounter between old show biz and the new counterculture. Legrand and Demy made a few great films out of it.

Apparently Matthew Weiner digs it too. You could see from the very first episodes of Mad Men, in the number of beatniks Don Draper kept coming across, that sooner or later he would employ one and co-opt his sensibility – and he has – and that a day of reckoning was looming for the ad guys, a full-on collision between the antiwar, anti-establishment movement and the corporate asses they make a swank living by kissing. That’s what I predict this season. I just hope we see Sal return for a triumphant out-of-the-closet moment, and that it’s tasteful.

Françoise Dorléac in 1967.

Françoise Dorléac in 1967.

As for Françoise Dorléac, she died the year Young Girls of Rochefort came out, allegedly while speeding to catch a plane at the Nice airport. If you think Gene Kelly’s too old for her, well, in one of her other films she was paired with David Niven, who was born older than middle-aged Gene Kelly. I can’t wait to see her on the big screen this week.