Tale of Tales is a fantasy horror film directed by Matteo Garrone. The Italian filmmaker has won multiple awards for his much-lauded films, including the Grand Prix at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival for Reality. Tale of Tales was a contender for the Palme d’Or at the festival in 2015, but lost out to Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan.
This film took its lead from Pentamerone, a 17th century collection of fairy tales by Italian Giambattista Basile. The tales are also known as Lo cunto de li cunti overo lo trattenemiento de peccerille, which translates to The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones. But goodness, this film is not for small people’s eyes. Pentamerone is said to have inspired authors like Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm – none of them strangers to the tragic and gruesome.
Right from the first scene in Tale of Tales, we’re plunged into Garrone’s world. It almost looks realistic, but we can sense that something uncanny is afoot. The first of the film’s three tales soon proves us right, when a pathologically clucky queen (Salma Hayek) is told the only way she can fall pregnant is if she eats the heart of a sea monster. You know, the usual.
There is nothing usual about how the film progresses. The king (John C. Reilly) slays the monster, and the queen dines for what must be hours on the enormous heart – the first of many uncomfortable moments in the film. Then we begin to follow another royal family, in which the king (Toby Jones), bored by his daughter’s childish pursuits and platitudes, adopts a flea as a pet. Feeding it on prime steaks and his own blood, the flea grows to an impressive size. Our third king, an intolerable, lusty creature (Vincent Cassel) falls in love with a woman after hearing her angelic singing voice from afar. What he doesn’t know is that she’s a hideous old crone, all too keen to keep her appearance a secret so she can capitalise on the king’s advances.
Each tale holds a moral lesson based around the idiocy of selfishness and vanity, and none of the offenders get off lightly. There’s the obsessive mother who ends up coddling her son, hampering his any happiness; the selfish, flea-ridden king who goes on to accidentally marry off his beloved daughter to an ogre; and the vain king who is tricked into marrying the old crone because she succeeds in changing her skin – for the time being.
Some of the film’s scenes are so ridiculous you have to laugh; others are so cringe-worthy and horrific, you don’t know where to look. A friend of mine described the film as “Grimm fairy tales on ice”, and he was right not to compare it to an acid trip, as that might have been a much friendlier experience. Tale of Tales was a very bad trip indeed.
While the performances are good, the costuming and sets sublime, the film fell down in its execution. The three tales were never brought together to form a cohesive narrative. It wasn’t enough that the royals all knew each other; we needed more in order to care about the characters, some kind of overarching progression we could latch onto and follow.
Tale of Tales has been compared to Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. While the latter left me feeling bereft (and impressed), so strong was its mood and narrative, this film was so jumbled and haphazard that I’m afraid the message was lost in all the quirkiness. I’m fairly sure I wasn’t the only audience member left wondering what the point of it all was.
Had Tale of Tales been more artfully executed with the threads of its rich tales brought together in a tangible, meaningful way, it would have been a much less frustrating experience.
Tale of Tales is now showing as part of Lotterywest Festival Films, Season 1. At UWA Somerville nightly until Sunday 10 January, then at ECU Joondalup Pines from Tuesday 12 to Sunday 17 January. Tickets/more info: perthfestival.com.au