In the push for fantasy films to receive dark and gritty treatments, Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales is a reminder that the fairytale world started exactly as such. Garrone (Gomorrah) has taken stories from Giambattista Basile’s 17th-century folklore collection that hugely influenced the Brothers Grimm. Unlike the standard fairytale that focused on teens or younger, Basile’s writings featured protagonists who were of the age that they could fall prey to their obsessions, neurotic desires, jealousies, and the patriarchy of royal rule. Basile’s tales taught lessons via dreadful outcomes, to help the readers stay on a righteous path.
In the film version of Tale of Tales there are three kingdoms. Each has a ruler with an all-consuming desire that horrifically injures those closest to them—in dark, twisted and fantastical ways. If these rulers can’t even keep their closest free of harm, what good can do they do for their kingdoms?
In one kingdom, a Queen (Salma Hayek) desperately wants to get pregnant. A necromancer tells the Queen and King (John C. Reilly) that the only way for her to conceive is for her to eat the heart of a water dragon—but only if a virgin has prepared the heart for her before she consumes it. In the neighboring kingdom of Strongcliff, the King (Vincent Cassel) is a lothario who’s fornicated his way throughout all of his land’s high society (literally littering naked bodies in his wake). Thus, he becomes enamored with a poor woman he hears singing in the alleyway (Hayley Charmichael). Said woman, Dora, won’t allow him to see her because she’s old and her skin needs to be properly pinned back (and flayed) to resemble someone he’d normally lay down with. And in the last Kingdom, the Highhills, its king (Toby Jones) allows his love and care of a flea (feeding it steaks until it grows as large as a large dog) to take priority over finding a suitable prince for his daughter (Bebe Cave).
That’s the fairytale layout. However, the introduction to each ruler is done in a clunky manner—as they all attend a funeral, but we’ve no concept of who they are until they declare to a subjugate that they are their king. It’s a confusing decision on the part of Garrone, that’s only marginally clarified by showing their different fortresses after we’ve already been introduced to their various kinky exploits.
Ultimately, in every story it’s the rulers who are the least interesting. In Hayek’s tale, our interest lies with her son, who befriends his twin that was born to the virgin from the great dragon-heart-cooking experiment of 1634 (the boys are played by real life twins, Christian Lees and Jonah Lees). In Cassel’s tale, our interest lies with the old woman who attempts to fool the King into sleeping with her by offering her finger through a keyhole (glory hole). In Jones’ section, his daughter is forced to step up from a princess-in-waiting to fighting for her life against an ogre.
Because the supporting characters—who each have to fight against their ruler’s daft wisdom—draw us in, as opposed to the above-the-line stars (the less interesting villains), it takes some time for Tale of Tales to find its groove, simply because the secondary characters are all introduced after the world is built. By the time the film does get a head of steam, the patchwork nature of the storytelling becomes problematic. Tale of Tales offers equal amusements and pauses, as it constantly resets—awkwardly—in times of peril. As such, many of the performances lack definition outside of actions, but both Cave and Shirley Henderson (as Charmichael’s equally disfigured friend, the one who’s delicate finger is used as a prop) are able to pin flesh to their character’s skeletons. Cave, in particular, is quite a find.
Fundamentally, Tale of Tales is a mixed bag of stories—but the bag itself is velvet. This is one of the most delicately beautiful films that you’ll see in 2016. Lensed by Peter Suschitzky (who has served as the director of photography on every David Cronenberg film since Dead Ringers; oh, and also something called The Empire Strikes Back), there is a glorious detail in this world’s texture. Suschitzky and Garrone slowly sneak up on the first kingdom by following the court jesters as they approach. Similarly, Garrone jettisons a standard action set piece in the slaying of the water dragon, by having Reilly softly approach it while it sleeps. And Cassel’s introduction is bumbled in terms of story introduction, but filmed with a winky voyeuristic flair. Expansive visuals are folded into Tale of Tales at every turn. From the forests, to the palaces, to a cave, the tapestry here is exquisite—but the story is patchy and jumps to the next tale whenever it starts to get intriguing. It’s beauty before story always—even in the approach to the shots—and Tale of Tales is hugely recommendable for imagery alone, but it drifts out of mind in terms of story.
Perhaps instead of doing the dark and gritty fairy tale as a one off, Garrone should’ve made Tale of Tales as if it were a part of another trend: a world-building trilogy. As is, it’s a beautiful film; visually textured, but paper thin.
Tale of Tales is currently in select theaters.