IN THE OPENING FIFTEEN minutes of Tale of Tales, a hunched old man in a black cloak tells a king (John C. Reilly) and a queen (Salma Hayek) that in order for the pair to conceive, they must kill a sea monster and have a virgin cook its heart. And without any further ado, the king straps on a steampunk diving suit and sets off to do just that.
This is the mad and fantastical sixteenth-century Italy of Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales, in which elements of the magical cannot be said to be purely incidental, but are opaque enough to reassure that this is a film not about monsters but about people. And–what’s more–there is a suggestion that Garrone is making clear his disdain for the sort of magical realism that excuses lazy writing.
The plot comprises three stories lifted from the tales of the Neapolitan poet Giambattista Basile about three Royal rulers. In the first, the Queen of Longtrellis (Hayek), who is unable to bear children, takes the advice of a necromancer in return for a child. The eccentric King of Highhills (Toby Jones) develops an unhealthy obsession with a flea and starts to neglect his loving and obedient daughter (Bebe Cave) in the second. Meanwhile, the womanising King of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel) pursues a hideous old woman after hearing her singing in the street and mistaking her for a beautiful teenager.
Tale of Tales, then, revolves around institutions and power, and the mad delusions those things inspire. Garrone grants himself a great deal of artistic licence in his take on Basile—Basile wrote the earliest versions of Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty, and influenced both the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen—but he doesn’t quite pull it off. You wonder, as the film draws to its unsatisfying close, what its point was.
The film’s principal faults are its confused structure and Garrone’s failure to push forward with more forceful pacing during each individual story. It is just as each tale draws you in that Garrone chooses to shift the narrative to the next. It isn’t until at least the midway point that the three tales begin to gather traction (when they do the film improves immeasurably) but there is too little time left. A linear approach, in which the stories are told back-to-back, might have suited better.
Visually, however, Tale of Tales is striking. Its setting is surreal and sometimes sinister, partly derivative of—yet achieving more than—Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods while at the same time borrowing darker features from Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Set designer Dimitri Capuani and costume designer Massimo Cantini Parrini concoct some gorgeously ornate visuals to contrast in stark fashion with the grotesque elements of the film.
The film’s little humour comes almost entirely from the severity with which all mad matters are treated by its eccentric characters, beginning with the dutiful slaying of the sea monster.
The flea is delightfully revolting (and I say this as someone who sat, stoney-faced, through The Human Centipede and Antichrist). The scenes which Toby Jones shares with the flea are easily the film’s best, and Salma Hayek is excellent as a suitably lugubrious queen. John C. Reilly, however, is bizarrely cast as the king of the film’s opening.
These are fables for lovers of the macabre, and weird and wild antidotes to cleaner takes on similar material and the moralistic fairy tales of Disney. Nevertheless, Tale of Tales rarely surprises or jars or delights, and lurches from story to story in an apparently arbitrary way. It simply doesn’t quite work.