Wandering into a screening of Tale of Tales is like being transported back to the 17th Century for a dark blast of fairytale wonder. The viewer is left stranded in a land of kings, queens, castles and mythical beasts as three tales unfold in a rich fantasy world. There is darkness, but not enough, and despite its best efforts, Tale of Tales drags in some of its sequences.
Based on a 17th century collection of tales by Italian author Giambattista Basile, the film features three different storylines, not all as engaging as each other and never tied together in any satisfactory way. First up, Salma Hayek and John C. Reilly take centre stage as the king and queen of a dusty kingdom where all the entertainers in the land can’t keep the queen from desiring a baby. After a visit from a mysterious hooded figure who offers them the chance of creating offspring, Reilly’s devoted king steps up to the plate and boldly goes to kill off a sea monster in order for his wife to be able to eat the heart and thus, magically conceive. Needless to say, things are never this simple and things soon turn awry.
Meanwhile, Vincent Cassel is a lecherous king who has seemingly used up all the women in his nearby kingdom and is looking for more playmates to be debauched with. After hearing a lone beauty singing beneath his castle walls, he ventures out to find the owner of such a sweet voice. Little does he know, the voice belongs to one of a pair of ugly old crone sisters who may or may not have found their way here after auditioning for Cinderella. Not wanting the king to see them in their decrepit state, they hide behind the door of their home but the king is nothing if not persistent. Then things get really weird.
Finally, Toby Jones is yet another king, whose only daughter he dotes on until the day he discovers he has a talented flea who has taken a shine to him. While the flea grows into his beloved pet, his teen daughter wants to find a prince, but gets more than she bargained for when her father makes a dubious choice by giving her to an ogre.
These tales are weaved together as we cut back and forth between them but the three sets of characters are only in two scenes together throughout the entire running time. Anyone expecting any kind of clever overlapping like in Pulp Fiction should think again. These tales may appear to take place in the same world, but the characters barely meet.
Lovers of dark fairytales will find much to enjoy in Tale of Tales and no doubt Cannes jury member Guillermo del Toro will already be eyeing this up for prizes. It may also manage to capitalise on the popularity of Game of Thrones with its familiar mix of realistic medieval elements and more bonkers fantastical leanings. The dark desires of these kings, queens, princes and princesses are balanced out by sea monsters, ogres, virgin births and magical breast milk. Yes that’s right, magical breast milk. Toby Jones must have thought Berberian Sound Studio wasn’t weird enough for him. In this, he falls in love with a giant pet flea.
Similarly, director Matteo Garrone, who made the critically adored crime tale Gomorrah, has clearly spent too long in the real world and fancied a dabble in the world of bizarre fantasy. In fairness, while the stories dither and budget constraints occasionally leave some effects lacking, for the most part Tale of Tales is a lavish affair. It’s got some striking imagery including some wonderful landscapes and beautiful production design. For those who saw Into the Woods, Tale of Tales looks vaguely similar but is much darker, and thankfully has much less singing.
That said, it never quite gets as dark as it could. There are moments that will leave viewers gasping, not least a very bloody flaying, but on the whole, Tale of Tales doesn’t make the most of its characters and their dangerous desires. Though these are fairytales for adults that come complete with dashes of sex and violence, Game of Thrones has trodden this territory before and heightened audience expectations for gratuitousness.
Apart from the always excellent Toby Jones, Tale of Tales also misses the opportunity to fully utilise its cast. Salma Hayek is not nearly as nuts as she should be as the queen with a slightly unhealthy obsession with her son, and John C. Reilly exits the film far too early. Vincent Cassel, on the other hand, bags most of the pitch black laughs, but is seen too little to really make this work as a comedy.
All in all, Tale of Tales is a competently directed splash of fantasy, but even with three stories to tell, it outstays its welcome.
About the Author
Peter Turner Senior Reporter & Critic for Tastic Film Magazine.