A compilation of horrific renaissance/barroque fairy tales which happen in four small kingdoms. All the story arcs are based on folk myths collected and published by the 16th-century Neapolitan poet and scholar Giambattista Basile – that book also contained the earliest versions of famous fables like Rapunzel,Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. Still the director seemed to like less known stories and he chose four of them for his movie.
It all starts with the kingdom of Darkwood (Selvascura): its Queen (Salma Hayek) cannot have children and is prepared to pay a very high price, in fact any price at all, to bear a son. One evening she is visited by a mysterious, tall, dark and ugly man (a magician ?) who tells her that, in order to conceive, her husband, the King (John C. Reilly), needs to slay a completely innocent and peaceful sea monster which hasn’t bothered anybody in its life. Then a virgin has to cook the monster’s heart and the Queen will get pregnant as soon as she eats that piece of monstrous offal (interesting: the Queen didn’t need to be a virgin but the servant did. Hmmm…). The Queen follows advice even though her husband is killed by the dying beast. She eats the heart and the same day she gives birth to a boy she calls Elias. The servant who cooked the heart also gives birth to a boy who is called Jonas. Both boys are so similar they look like identical twins and soon they befriend each other. Will Prince Elias love the Queen as much as she loves him?
Then you get another King (Toby Jones) of the kingdom of Highmountain (Altomonte) who, during his daughter’s recital, gets fascinated by a simple flea. He nourishes it carefully and it grows bigger and bigger, reaching the size of your average pig, until one night it dies of a kind of lung disease. The devastated King orders to skin the flea and hangs the precious hide in his hall; then he promises to give his daughter as a bride to whomever is able to guess the skin’s provenance. An ogre (Guillaume Delaunay) solves the riddle and wins the princess. Princess Violet (Bebe Cave), who has dreamed of marrying a handsome knight, a Lancelot, attempts to commit suicide by plunging off the castle’s tower to her death, but her father stops her, and says that she must go through with the marriage because he has made it his proclamation. In tears, Violet agrees, stating that her Father never loved her at all and goes with the ogre to his dirty, mountainous cave. Will she be happy?
The third kingdom of Stronghold (Roccaforte) is ruled by a very dissolute, luscious, sex-addicted King (Vincent Cassel) who, no matter what, cannot satiate his erotic appetites. One night he spots a woman who is singing beautifully and, even though she is covered from head to toes, he fells in lust with her. Adamant in seducing her, he courts her outside her home, unaware that she is one of the two elderly dyer sisters and her name is Dora (Hayley Carmichael). Dora wants to use the lust of the King to get rich. She is taken to the royal bedchamber but she demands there is no candle lit when she sleeps with the King. Still the King, anxious to see the face of his new lover, lights a candle he’s hidden under his bed. Seeing that Dora is ugly and old he calls his guards and orders to throw the poor woman through the window. Still Dora doesn’t die – she hangs on a tree and is found by a witch (?) who restores her youth and beauty. Will she use that gift in a proper way?
I adored the visual side of this movie – it was easily one of the best fairy tale adaptations I have had the pleasure to watch. Those Kings and Queens and castles which seemed to be enough for the whole kingdoms, were indeed nice to admire. I also enjoyed the philosophical meaning which the director decided to keep. In all three tales, the selfishness of the characters led to their ultimate destruction based on their fixation of lustful desire rather than true love. The Queen smothered her son with her selfish demands. The lustful King used his own subject as tools of erotical satisfaction. The King of Highmountain was so fixated on the flea, after all just a parasite, that he stopped being a good Father and sacrificed his daughter, who looked up to him and loved him. The flea was a gross creature and meant to symbolize a hobby or other small, unimportant matter that a parent may indulge rather than focusing on their children. In the end, this mistake stripped the King of both his royal and paternal title and caused his Princess a lot of grief.
What, in my humble opinion, lacked, was a better closure for all the story arcs. Out of four of them only two ended in a more or less satisfactory way. I was really disappointed that we weren’t told what happened to Dora’s sister, Imma, after her dramatic decision (I am being deliberately vague in order not to spoil) and how the lustful King reacted to a drastic change in his new wife’s looks. Violet was rewarded for her courage (not saying how) and the Queen played by Hayek ended badly but the other characters’ fate remained unresolved.
My other complaint concerns the lack of three-dimensional monsters. I know it’s an adaptation of highly schematic fairy tales written long time ago but some monsters were almost begging for a deeper characterisation and were denied it. I think here mainly about the poor husband of poor Violet but also about the sea monster whose heart was used in a kind of fertility treatment. I wish they were given a voice of their own but they weren’t. Pity.
Despite its flaws a very original film adaptation of some more obscure European fairy tales. Not suitable for children (a lot of nudity) but the adults should have a lot of fun while watching it.