Early on in Tale of Tales, Salma Hayek’s pearl adorned queen eats the giant, bloody heart of a sea monster, which was killed by her late husband, in an effort to become pregnant and produce an heir. Yes, this scene is as grotesque as it sounds and this is just one of several bizarre moments in Matteo Garrone’s decadent but freaky ode to Giambattista Basile.
While not a household name like the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen, Basile – a 17th century Neapolitan scholar – influenced the former with his collection of traditional fairy tales. For his English-language debut, director Garrone (Gomorrah, Reality) has decided to pay tribute to his forgotten countryman by weaving together three of these parables in a lush big screen adaptation. Although the result looks enticingly textured and mesmerising, appearances cannot make up for the completely distasteful characters, uneven tone and plodding pace.
The opening episode is driven by Hayek’s desperation to have a child, which pushes her to indulge in witchcraft. Her spouse, the king (a brief turn by John C. Reilly), is forced to plunge to the bottom of the sea in a Jules Verne-esque diving suit to kill a dragon-type creature and capture its beating heart. He dies from an injury but not before delivering the vital organ to his wife. However, the cooking of the heart inadvertently makes a lowly servant pregnant as well because she inhales the fumes from the cauldron. Both she and the queen give birth to identical albino sons – a prince and a pauper.
The second episode involves Toby Jones’s monarch, a dim-witted and seemingly harmless fellow – that is until he adopts a flea as a pet, feeds and nurtures it, neglecting his young daughter (Bebe Cave) in the process. He marries her off to a vile ogre making her life wretched and horrible, yet the flea remains and grows larger and larger.
The third episode is centred around a sex-mad and corrupt king (Vincent Cassel), who falls in love with a female singing voice from the village below his castle. He does not realise the woman herself is an old, ugly maiden with a clingy sister. Despite her reluctance to present herself, Cassel continues to visit and whisper sweet nothings through her door. His foolishness and her cunningness eventually lead to a chilling scenario.
Given the size of the ensemble cast and tricky material, ensuring a consistent level of performance and delivery was always going to be challenging. Sadly Tale of Tales fails to hit the mark. Besides the distracting range of accents, some actors play their parts entirely straight and others go for subversive humour. To top it off, not one character is charismatic or sympathetic enough to sustain interest in this cinematic tapestry of folklore. While grown-up viewers may not need a hero or heroine, the film’s focus on lust, greed, bitterness and disgust requires the occasional palate cleanser to ease the feelings of ickiness.
Where Tales of Tales excels is the stunning cinematography, production design and costumes. Garrone and his team create a world of baroque beauty with imaginative landscapes of sharply contrasting colours and gorgeous clothing. The film was shot entirely on location in Italy and then enhanced where necessary with CGI. Since Garrone’s background leans towards contemporary subjects and social realism, his grasp of the visuals is commendable.
Ultimately though, Tales of Tales is too long, unwieldy and quirky to jump out of its niche genre and attract an international audience – and even many arthouse fans will find it difficult to swallow.