Every desire comes at a price. That thought is at the heart of virtually every fairy tale, and the three that Matteo Garrone unfolds in his sprawling Tale of Tales are no exception. But make no mistake: these are not your Disney fairy tales. No learning of important life lessons or sugar coated storylines in service of character development in this one. Garrone approaches his stories of kings and queens, princes and peasants, ogres and monsters, as fairy tales should: grotesque, gory and wondrous, with characters serving the story instead of the other way around.
The three tales are based on the work of 16th century Neapolitan poet Giambattista Basile. Originally titled Lo Cunto de li Cunti (quite literally Tale of Tales), but more commonly known as the Pentamerone, this work contains the earliest known versions of such classics as Cinderella and Rapunzel. This being the 16th century, these tales were infused with gore and flesh, and it’s been only in later history that these fairy tales have been ‘sanitized’, so to speak, to arrive at the kid-friendly versions that we know today. However, Garrone has opted to adapt three lesser-known stories from the Pentamerone, and to keep all the gory and outlandish details. So no, this is not a fairy tale you can take your children to, which should be reflected in rating boards’ decisions.
The first tale tells the story of a queen (Salma Hayek) plagued by infertility. Her desire for a child is so big that when a stranger ends up on her doorstep declaring that she can have a child, but at a sacrifice, she jumps on the occasion. The recipe for shaking off her barren state involves eating a heart cooked by a virgin (pictured left), but this wouldn’t be a fairy tale if there wasn’t a twist: the virgin becomes pregnant with the twin brother of the queen’s child. Her desire to have her son all for her own leads, predictably, to trouble.
The second tale is that of a king (Toby Jones, in glorious form) who desires to keep his daughter at home as long as he can. The daughter in the meantime can’t wait to marry a knight in shining armour, and there is never a shortage of those in fairy tale lands. Her father tries to play a trick on her, which has a rather elaborate and grotesque and out there setup, but as these things go, a twist throws the princess into the arms of an ogre.
The third tale involves another king (Vincent Cassel), a man full of lust and desire that he can never fully satiate. One day he hears a wonderful voice singing, and while he localizes the woman the voice belongs to (Shirley Henderson), he never gets to see her, as she flees into her humble pigsty before showing herself to him. It turns out the woman is one of two ugly old twin sisters. They strongly desire to be young and beautiful again, and with some medieval plastic surgery one of the sisters manages to entice the king. But again desires blow up in the faces of the characters, and the old woman is thrown out of the castle window to her death. A stroke of luck prevents that, and an even bigger stroke of luck happens upon her that turns her into a beautiful young woman (Stacy Martin). But her good fortune, of course, will not last to the end.
Those in search of thematic depth should probably look elsewhere, as Tale of Tales never goes much further than a ‘be careful what you wish for‘ central message, but there are some universal human values at the centre of these tales. If you take away the lavish and thickly laid on artistic veneer, there is a simple but truthful heart beating in this film, aside from the one that is eaten. It manages to have a little fun at the expense of aristocracy, but it doesn’t go much deeper than that, and it doesn’t have to. These tales were always meant to thrill and bewonder, enchant and entertain, and Garrone does not have loftier goals for them.
While all actors involved do an admirable job, this isn’t an actor’s film, and it is on the technical front that Tale of Tales scores heaviest. The spectacular art direction immediately conjures up images of Terry Gilliam (most specifically his Adventures of Baron Munchausen), and this review will not be the first, nor the last, to make that comparison. Together with the costume design and makeup and hair departments they have created a fully realized world that feels vast and scary (something lacking in, for instance, recent Hollywood attempts at fairy tale stories, like Into the Woods), at once realistically medieval yet lavishly out of this world. Alexandre Desplat contributes one of his better recent scores, mixing romance and baroque in equal parts.
The film is not completely without flaws though. Garrone chooses to intercut the three storylines, and while he brings the three together in the film’s final scene, at times the story switching feels like we are catching up with all major characters in a large-cast television show (say, Game of Thrones). It is hard to say if telling the stories one by one would have worked better, but some of the cuts are a bit jarring. The conclusion to the film feels a bit rushed as well, especially in the way it winds up the storylines involving Salma Hayek and her son and Vincent Cassel and his bride. Some of the scenes also feel a bit drawn out, which could reflect Garrone’s interpretation of the nature of fairy tale storytelling, but makes for a sometimes slow-paced film. Not that the slow pace itself is an issue, but it is an unusual choice for the genre.
These are all nitpicks, however, as Tale of Tales is an entertaining thrill ride full of flesh and gore, and an over-the-top freakishness that could turn off a larger audience, but should make this play well with an art house crowd that simply wants to be entertained once in a while.