Ten years ago, Tale of Tales might have seemed pretty fresh, innovative and sumptuous stuff – a return to the world of the adult fairy tale that cinema had long since abandoned, daringly sexual and gory. Unfortunately, today it looks more like a cinematic version of a glossy television fantasy drama or costume epic, the daring aspects of the film paling into insignificance compared to the sex and violence excesses of everything from Game of Thrones to Rome, both of which make this look very restrained. And the film has that multinational awkwardness that you find in modern Euro TV efforts like Borgia and Versailles, leading to an ultimately unsatisfying experience.
Based on three stories from Giambattista Basile’s pioneering fairy tale work Pentamerone, the film is certainly glossy and well mounted. But then, so are the TV shows that it resembles. And it shares many of the problems of those shows, but few of the advantages. The biggest issue is the cast – more notably, the younger members. There’s something very odd about British actors under 30, which I’ve noticed on several TV shows as well as here. Whether it is the theatrical tradition or the soap opera / social realism fixation of much British film and television, but it does seem that once they are cast in a less realist story – one that doesn’t require them to adopt faux working class accents – then these performers struggle to convince as they over-enunciate furiously. Certainly, there are very weak, very flat, entirely unconvincing and emotionally uninvolving performances here.
These flat performances, ironically, make the film seem even more TV-like – this sort of acting has long been the curse of those shows. But while on television, there is at least the chance that a character can develop over time, here there is no such luck. With three stories – interwoven with each other to ensure that the viewer can’t even get their teeth into a single narrative – there is little room for character or even plot development.
And the other fault of the film is that the stories are really not that strong anyway, even before being diluted. In one, a Queen (Salma Hayek) is desperate for a child, and so her husband (John C. Reilly) battles a sea monster and cuts out its heart – dying in the process – so the Queen can eat it and absorb its magical, pregnancy-giving powers. Unfortunately, the woman cooking the heart inhales its magical powers to, and the pair both give birth to identical albino sons. The two young boys form a bond as they grow to manhood, much to the Queen’s anger, and eventually Jonah – the below stairs child – is sent into exile.
In the second story, a King (Toby Jones develops an obsession with a flea, feeding and nurturing it until it grows to giant size. When it dies, he has it skinned and holds a contest, ostensibly to find a suitor for his daughter Violet (Bebe Cave). Whoever can correctly guess what creature the hide came from will win the princess’s hand in marriage. Unfortunately, it is a grotesque ogre who can identify – from smell – the skin.
The third story has Vincent Cassel as a lecherous King who is entranced by the beautiful singing of what he assumes must be an equally beautiful maiden. Unfortunately, it’s actually old crone Dora, who lives with her equally ancient sister. When the King persists with his advances to the unseen woman, she finally agrees to sleep with him, as long as it is under cover of darkness. But the next morning, he sees the truth and has her thrown out of a window. Her life is saved by becoming entangled in a tree, where she is discovered and rescued by a witch who returns her youth and beauty to her, allowing her to marry the King.
Each of these stories has its moments, but none really hold your attention – they meander and plod, and whenever one might be getting interesting, we cut to anther story. And they have a tendency to fizzle out. Fairy tales are, at heart, morality tales, but there is little sense of that here. As such, they fail to draw you in and hold your attention. I’ll admit that I had to watch this film in two halves, as both myself and my other half found ourselves nodding off during the initial viewing.
The film looks authentically fairy tale like, certainly, but the gushing comments from critics abut its eroticism and grotesqueness can only be explained if we realize that even now, many a film critic just doesn’t watch TV – and so all this probably seems a lot more innovative and daring to them. But in truth, the sex is mild, the violence unremarkable (even the most spectacular moment, involving a flaying, is not all that eye-popping compared to a single episode of Spartacus) and the general grotesqueness feels overly contrived. Comparisons to Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam might be accurate, though not necessarily complimentary given the work of those directors in the last decade or more; comparisons to Pasolini and Borowczyk seem almost insulting to the memories of those visionary filmmakers. Yes, there are moments of real beauty and scenes that work perfectly as individual moments – but as the whole, the film fails to satisfy. A film needs to be more than just a series of gorgeous tableaus.
Matteo Garrone has crafted a glossy but ultimately unremarkable fantasy story here. The film is ultimately a little too full of itself to really work, and I suspect that if you come to this having absorbed the hype, you’ll be very disappointed.