“Tale of Tales” promotes itself as a fairy tale for adults and it most certainly is that. It includes the familiar morality tropes found most common is Aesop’s fables awash with sleaze, gore, and raw sexuality. Of course, all fairy tales are technically for adults, seeing as how most of them are based on Grimms’ Fairy Tales, which are notoriously dark and gruesome. Even before Grimm was Giambattista Basile, a poet whose fables dealt with witchcraft and monsters as representations of morality. Matteo Garrone is simply taking the fairy tale back to its mature roots. He does so by loosely weaving together tales of corrupted morality and egos driven mad, all of which are propped up by the backdrop of royalty. It would be no surprise to learn that Matteo’s intentions were to break down the stuffy persona of royalty by shining a light on the depravity behind all of it.
Each tale deals with a sin. Pride is in the form of the King and Queen of Longtrellis (John C. Reilly & Salma Hayek), with the former selling his soul in return for a son to carry on his legacy. Sloth takes over the wife, who makes a town virgin carry the seed (inadvertently, mind you), then demonizes her for giving birth to twins (i.e. wrath). The twins, Jonah & Elias (Christian & Jonah Lees), befriend one another against the wishes of the Queen and conspire to trick her and the kingdom into both of them being King (a combination of sloth and greed).
Lust and envy overcome two sisters, Imma & Dora (Shirley Henderson & Hayley Carmichael), with the latter’s dulcet tones piquing the interest of the King of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassell). The King is the walking embodiment of lust, forever parading around in a sexual stupor. He sees beauty as only skin deep, and when he discovers Dora’s beautiful voice doesn’t match her outer appearance, he vanquishes her, denoting her as a witch. An actual witch would come along and put a curse on Dora, giving her the outer beauty she so desires to win the King’s heart…at a price, of course.
Lastly, there’s the King of Highhills (Toby Jones), a man so entranced in his pet mutated flea that he neglects his daughter, Violet (Beba Cave), which is a variation on sloth. Envy overcomes Violet, and in turn the King’s pride gets the best of him. He skins the flesh off of his pet flea and will give his daughter’s hand in marriage to any man who can correctly guess the creature. Lo and behold, an ogre of a man guesses correctly, shocking the King and traumatizing the princess.
All of these tales are serviceable, but they all left me wanting more. Matteo felt as if he was getting his feet wet, holding back on the stories’ full potential. There’s a flatness to all three of them at times, with the gimcrack editing softening their impact. The nods to Basile help spice things up, with the monsters feeding into one’s childhood wonder. The creature designs themselves are nifty, with one creature in particular reminding me of a smaller scaled version of the “Cloverfield” monster.
Also helping matters is the exquisite cinematography by Peter Suschitzky. Lavish landscapes engulf “Tale of Tales,” with the tranquility of nature perfectly complementing the squalid acts of sin. One will never be bored by the film, as it’s too gorgeous to lose one’s attention. Any shortcomings that arise from the tales are superseded by the beautiful visuals.
As all three stories begin to intertwine, the quality of each increases. More and more familiar tropes are introduced, making each tale easier to digest. Familiarity may breed contempt, but it can also breed comfort as it does in “Tale of Tales.” The film is at its best when playing with the common traits found in fairy tales. Matteo does a splendid job of breaking down the moral compass of society, just as Basile and the Brothers Grimm did. The stories themselves may not reach the heights of those three men, but they’re all just as ambitious.
Final Rating: B