Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales is certainly easy on the eye. A lavish landscape for the bizarre surrealism of Giambattista Basile’s gruesome fairytales that even predate the Brothers Grimm. The film is loosely based on three of the Neapolitan poet’s tales – The Enchanted Doe, The Flea, The Flayed Old Lady – that all crossover and interlink. I think what intrigued most people about the film was its international casting. It’s always quite a rush to see a Hollywood actor mix it up with the European “intellectuals” and on the surface John C Reilly looks very convincing as a Renaissance king. That is until he opens his mouth. This isn’t a lambasting of Reilly as I place him as one of cinemas best character actors working today, but his renditions of the script does not to anybody justice. Hayek seems much more at home as the maternally desperate Queen of Longtrellis. Her subtle mannerisms and ice cold glare convince us that she is a force to be reckoned with.
The Queen is unable to bear children, but is determined to do everything in her power to do so, including nibbling on the raw heart of a sea beast. Naturally, this permits the Queen immaculate conception and she gives birth to baby albino called Elias (Christian Lees). Unbeknownst to her majesty, a peasant woman is a sucker for bloody raw beast heart too. She also gives birth to an albino boy, twin of Elias, Jonah. The tale of the prince and the pauper begins. Meanwhile, a king from another region (Toby Jones) commences an odd obsession with a flea, feeding it until it reaches the size of a Galapagos tortoise, eventually dying from respiratory failure. The King’s obsession and pride for the tortoise leads him to unwillingly wed his princess daughter to a violent ogre.
Simultaneously, in another land, a king (Vincent Cassel) with a debauched lifestyle becomes infatuated with the aura of a poor old hag, who has the voice of an angel and the physical features of a witch. Nymphomaniac that the king is, begs the old lady for a blind date before having a rude awakening.
All these short stories are quirky and mildly amusing in their own right, but the Garrone’s decision to intercut between them doesn’t allow us enough time to get invested with the characters or care about their outcome. The structure and flow of the film becomes tedious, until the princess’ escape from the ogre’s squaller. We get a chase that ups the ante for a few frames, but too little too late.
It could be argued that there’s a theme of obsession that sews the three stories together – the yearning for maternal control, playing God, lustful desire – but at the end of the day, who cares? I really wanted to like Tale of Tales, but the lack of character development and potency wouldn’t allow me to. Even the beautiful imagery, mise en scene and eccentricities couldn’t keep me invested in the overall piece. There was always a threat of violence throughout that the filmmakers never really capitalised on, making way for a very geriatric fantasy-horror, which has been likened to Game of Thrones. Heavy lies the crown, I suppose.