Let Me Tell You a Story

TALE OF TALES (15) IT/FR/UK 2015 134mins, directed by Matteo Garrone, with Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones, Duke of York's Picturehouse Brighton, Friday 17 June, 8.15pm.

The thing is about fairy tales, folk tales, their origins are mysterious. They have no single identifiable author. Sure, there are the famous collections we all know about, Grimm, Perrault, Aesop, The Arabian Nights, and in this case, Giambattista Basile from Naples, but these are all adaptations, written versions of stories from a time before printing became an industrial process, before reading and writing were universal, when people remembered and retold stories. If you couldn't read, then bedtime stories were something you remembered or made up or both (with the added benefit of allowing you to make the story as long or short as you wish; your child isn't able to catch you in the act of skipping pages.)

In the late middle ages, writers such as Chaucer and Boccaccio, following the format of The Arabian Nights, recreated a dramatic context wherein the tales were told verbally to a group of listeners, even though they were in fact written down. Basile's collection follows that format with a very complex contextual situation, which has a woman, in order to marry a certain prince, having to fill a pitcher (the size of half a barrel so you can assume very large) with her tears over the course of three days, but just as she is about to achieve the task she falls asleep and someone else steals the almost full pitcher of tears, tops it up with her own tears and claims the prince. This puts in train a very complex series of magical events and curses, the upshot of which is that the prince gathers ten of the best female storytellers to tell ten stories a day over five days. One of the storytellers is the woman whose pitcher of tears was stolen, and the final story relates this act of perfidy, and justice is finally done, though in a rather gruesome fashion.

The point of these frame stories is to give credit where it's due, that is everywhere, to a universal authorship, and to make the point that the stories come to life in, and are indivisible from, the social situation.

Quoting from the Gutenberg version of Basile's tales online:
'you see the artisans leave their workshops, the merchants their country-houses, the lawyers their cases, the shopkeepers their business, and all repair with open mouths to the barbers' shops and to the groups of chatterers, to listen to stories, fictions, and news in the open air'.

In other words, not just children listened to fairy stories. Everyone did.

That's where it all started. Where we've got to, via the printing press, the invention of banks and credit and joint stock companies and the steam engine and factories and photography and global communication, is this film, which is most definitely owned by someone or other: the filmmaker, the person who put up the money, the distributor, the cinema.

The only certainty is that the audience definitely doesn't own it.

What has been lost and what gained in the transformation from something ubiquitous, like the air, to something produced and packaged, like deodorant?

Well, humour for one. When something is first and foremost a product and has to make money, it's in danger of looking like an advertisement for itself, as a rock clip is an advertisement for a song, with a tendency to lean heavily toward sensationalism, horror, the erotic, visual pyrotechnics, etc. and light on self-deprecation or satire.

Fairy tales should be scary, funny, teach a lesson, suggest an allegory, poke fun at foibles, puncture self-importance, reinforce bonds between parents and children, and between and among communities. They should belong to everyone.
Tale of Tales, the film, is a fairly self-important, clichéd take on the folk tale genre. And it dispenses with the frame story. But one of the three tales it presents, originally titled The Flea, seems to have a remarkable resonance to current events.

So I'd like to re-tell it here, in the spirit of recovering, in a small way, something which belongs to everyone.

A King has a beautiful daughter who would like (soon) to be married. The King is bitten, one day, by a flea. He is about to kill the flea but something makes him pause. He looks closely at the flea. The flea is interesting, a fellow creature, full of possibility. He becomes fascinated by the flea, obsessed even to the point where he neglects his duties. And his daughter.

He spends all day with the flea, feeding it on steak and other delicacies until it become the size of a large pig. This takes quite some time and the flea, like all fleas not being long lived, succumbs to old age and dies.

The King, wishing to memorialise the flea, has its skin tanned and hung in a special frame which everyone can look at and admire. But this isn't enough. He wants the flea to have some significance, to make a difference. He also wants to enjoy his secret: this is the skin of a flea! How amazing is that?

The flea now gone, the King remembers his daughter and her burning desire to be married.

He has an idea, which he causes to be proclaimed: whomsoever in the kingdom, and without, can identify the origin of the skin (flea) can claim the hand of the Princess in marriage.

His daughter is, of course, upset but definitely wants to be married. The King remains confident that no-one will guess the answer. This will keep his daughter quiet for now at least.

Many young men try. And fail. The Princess is very frustrated.

Until one day there arrives in the kingdom a large, fat, ugly man, wild and dirty. An ogre. He doesn't even need to approach the skin, he recognises the odour of flea from miles away. He is very familiar with fleas!

The Princess beseeches her father to save her. But there is nothing he can do. Well, nothing he's willing to do. He could, of course, just tell the ogre to get lost. But his pride is more important than his daughter, so the ogre carries her off to his cave where he feasts on the flesh and bones of the men and women he has killed.

How to save the Princess?

The ogre has a slave, a figure lurking in the shadows, at the back of the cave. Each evening, after the ogre has eaten, the slave sings him to sleep. (He sleeps at the entrance to the cave blocking any way out.)

The Princess' only hope is this slave, dirty, suspicious, foreign, but not without potential. (He can sing for a start.)

You know how this ends of course: Wuthering Heights but with Cathy and Heathcliff getting together.

What the Princess can't do is forgive her father. When she and her paramour, the slave, return, she deposes the King, marries her lover and they rule together in his place.

And everyone lives happily ever after. (You can always read the original if you really want to.)

Paul Corcoran