The Italian writer-director Matteo Garrone made a name for himself in 2008 by laying bare the workings of a mafia family in the thrilling Gommorah, and poked a stick at modern commercial television in Reality (2012). His first English-language film, Tale of Tales (Il racconto dei racconti), is a different beast entirely. Dark, vividly drawn comedic fairy-tales about kings and queens, princesses, witches, and terrifying, ugly monsters put the director into somewhat unknown territory.
With three other screenwriters, Garrone has adapted the work of a 17th-century Neapolitan poet. Giambattista Basile’s Il Pentamerone (also called Tale of Tales), published in 1634, was inspiration for much of what we now think of as fairytales. Hans Christian Anderson acknowledged Basile as a forerunner to his own writings, and the Brothers Grimm praised Il Pentamoerone as having been “for a long time the best and richest [set of fairy-tales] that had been found by any nation.” From nearly fifty stories, Garrone and his co-writers selected and elaborated upon three.
In the first story, Salma Hayek plays a queen fixated on having a child. She’s told by a moon-eyed oracle that she’ll get pregnant and go into labour almost instantaneously upon eating the heart of a giant sea monster cooked whole by a virgin, but only if that heart is taken by her husband, the king (John C. Reilly). The virgin gets pregnant, too, by inhaling the steam that rises from the simmering pot. Both women have albino sons who become inseparable, as if they came out of the same womb; the story skips ahead 16 years to show the near-twins vying unscrupulously for the queen’s affection.
In the second story, Vincent Cassell is entertaining in the role of a long-haired lothario driven to extremes by his passion for a pair of elderly sisters who trick him into thinking they’re as young as their voices had him believe. Their quest to please him drives them to gruesome and bizarre acts. There are moments of lucid beauty in what unfolds in between, but they’re sadly diverted from all too quickly. The third story, like the first, also involves monsters: a princess is taken from her castle and becomes entangled with a troglodyte, while her father (a masterful Toby Jones) turns a flea into an enormous, slimy pet by feeding him blood — both human and animal. Special effects abound here, but they’re cheaply produced computer-generated ones.
While the above plots may sound like the makings of a horror film, in Garrone’s telling these stories are fodder for equal parts gross-out comedy and small-time magic tricks — flourishes of cinematic gorgeousness are quickly drowned out by blood, guts, and silly little jokes. The film is peppered with arresting images, but none of them lingers enough.
A lot of effort seems to have been expended on perfecting the framing and composition of establishing and long shots, without nearly as much attention paid to the in-between. Elsewhere, the sound design and music deserve considerable praise, but more than a few lines of dialogue seem Americanised, as if ‘translated’ for a broad US audience before a frame was ever shot. The biggest and most obvious mis-step, however, lies in the fact that the stories aren’t linked — save for a shoe-horned, all-together-now ending. The characters certainly all inhabit the same generic mythical land, but there’s nothing of the high-concept universe someone like Guillermo del Toro might have crafted from this base.
It may be misplaced nostalgia that makes me want to compare this to the great ’80s fantasy-comedies of my generation’s youth, but I feel compelled nonetheless. Nothing in Tale of Tales’ uninspired script, quickly drafted CGI or handful of mid-level stars muttering jokes comes close to the creepy-friendly monsters brought to life in Jim Henson’s Creature Shop — or, for that matter, David Bowie’s too-tight leather pants in Labyrinth. Garrrone either needed to have much more fun with this material, perhaps broadening his source material to include more of Basile’s tales, or go all-out to build a serious, sturdy world in which these three stories could flourish.