Once Upon a Time...

Tale of Tales
(Italy/France/UK, 135 min.)
Dir. Matteo Garrone, Writ. Edoardo Albinati, Ugo Chiti, Matteo Garrone, Massimo Gaudiso
Starring: Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones, Shirley Henderson, Hayley Carmichael, Bebe Cave, Christian Lees, Jonah Lees
Salma Hayek stars in Tale of Tales.
Courtesy of Les Films Séville.

Once upon a time, there was a movie genre. It transported audiences from place to place, borough to borough, quartier to quartier, coffeehouse to coffeehouse, and era to era. New York stories, Parisian love letters, coffee cups and cigarette butts, and legends of red violins all left film lovers with fond memories of tales of tales.

The anthology film, though, doesn’t hold the same place in movieland as short stories do in the world of literature. Outside of a few great examples, they rarely work. Not every filmmaker is Alice Munro.

Matteo Garrone takes the latest stab at multi-narrative filmmaking with the fairy tale anthology The Tale of Tales. The Italian filmmaker does the Christopher Nolan thing by returning the genre back to its origins and doing away with the lighter, sillier stuff audiences see in many fairy tale films and fantastical odysseys. Garrone doesn’t strip the fairy tales down, but he makes them dark as he and a trio of additional screenwriters adapt three stories from Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone. The source material describes the stories as “entertainment for little ones,” but there is no mistaking that this fairy tale triptych is not for kids.

The first, and probably strongest, of the three stories stars Salma Hayek as a wrathful queen hungry to have a child and produce an heir. Her husband (John C. Reilly, in an unfortunately short-lived performance) brings her the heart of a sea beast to fulfill a prophecy that also involves a virgin, Immaculate Conception, and twenty-four hour pregnancy. Gifted with an albino son, Elias (Christian Lee), and his identical “moon twin” (Jonah Lee), the queen fumes that her kingdom might be at risk to the ambitions of a poor bastard who looks just like her son.

Story the second goes next door to the neighbouring kingdom and features two old wrinkly sisters (Shirley Henderson and Hayley Carmichael), who draw the interest of their king (Vincent Cassel). The king, prone to bouts of whoring, wants to bed the women on whom he’s never laid eyes. A trick, a ruse, an aghast king, and a suckle on a witch’s breast later, and one of the sisters is transformed into a tight, young, and fuckable maiden.

The third and stupidest tale of Tales offers a mad king (Toby Jones) who loves a giant flea and betroths his daughter (Bebe Cave) to an ogre that weirdly looks like Jason Statham. Some ill-fated carnies up the body count.

A fit of ire and a flaying later, stories one and two deliver some fantastical bouts of adventure and dark humour. Hayek is devilishly fun as she chews the scenery, both figuratively and literally, as the angry, paranoid queen who yields her love like a weapon. The story of the sisters, on the other hand, is bizarre and darkly funny, a carnivalesque episode of Nip and Tuck as the sister played by Shirley Henderson longs for the youth that her sister enjoys. Garrone slathers Tale of Tales in blood, gore, sex, and violence. These tales aren’t the sugary delights of Walt Disney’s imagination: they’re debauched and sinister fables sown from the roots of fairy tale lore.

The inanity of storyline three, however, kills any humour or flight of wonder that stories one and two conjure with their fantastic voyages. This repetitive and utterly humorless debacle doesn’t charm at all even though it tries its damnedest to endear itself to the audience. The film especially suffers from lesser star power and diminished screen presence of its players compared to Hayek, Cassel, and Henderson’s performances in spite of the over the top boobery that plays out as king, flea, princess, and ogre play a game of matchmaking gone awry. Nothing about it works.

What does work in Tale of Tales works marvellously, though, as Garrone calls up a spectacular production. Even when Tale of Tales is sluggishly boring, it’s a magical feast for the eyes as the dark tailoring of this fantasy world is a bewitching vision. The sumptuous costumes by Massimo Cantini Parrini are simply stunning, while the elaborate production design by Dimitri Capuani and Alessia Anfuso is wild and vivid—both achievements of Tale of Tales’ artisanship is especially high for a modest international co-production. The cinematography by David Cronenberg regular Peter Suschitzky, finally, is gloriously dark and moody.

The moral of the story in Tale of Tales is that an anthology is rarely the sum of its parts. As competing storylines pause and skip to the next chapter, each narrative arc loses its appeal and momentum. Storylines are abandoned, characters disappear, and the weight of one rotten apple poisons the bushel. The nature of the film also burdens each of the three stories with a heavy load of exposition, and even at 135 minutes, A Tale of Tales leaves the audience with a trio of fairy tales that seem only partly told.

Then, one magical day, filmmakers decided that anthology films don’t work.
And Cinemablographer lived happily ever after.

Tale of Tales is now on home video from eOne Films.