A film made of embroidered damask, blood, and the kind of magic one must suppress the urge to spell with a “k,” Matteo Garrone‘s “Tale of Tales” marks an even greater sea change in approach than between his last two lauded, but wildly different titles: “Gomorrah” and “Reality.” Based on the 17th century fairy stories of Giambattista Basile, which were simply the written-down versions of folktales that had existed for centuries prior, there is certainly a sense of age and ancient rot to the storytelling, as though this is just the latest time someone has whispered these weird tales of monsters and queens into another’s ear, and the details will almost certainly be misheard and altered with the next airing. Just as a bell is not a bell until it’s rung, these tales only really exist in the act of telling, and so Garrone’s baroque, sumptuous take is, almost from conception, a grand folly, a lavish and painstaking attempt to set in stone, or carve in ivory, or weave into a permanent, blood-spattered tapestry, stories which by their nature resist definition, and are meant to change and warp with time.
The film is tripartate, tracing three equally inexplicable, grotesque, and beautiful stories centering on three royal families whose kingdoms appear to border each other, thus allowing Garrone to bring the characters from the otherwise separate strands together on three occasions (a state funeral, a royal wedding, and a coronation). The first story involves Salma Hayek‘s beautiful queen, who, along with her devoted husband the King (John C Reilly), follows a cowled shaman’s instructions and experiences an overnight full-term pregnancy, although so does the servant abetting the plan. Sixteen years later, the two children, one a prince, the other a servant’s bastard, are identical (Christian and Jonah Lees) and inseparable, much to the chagrin of Hayek’s haughty, ferociously maternal Queen. The second strand features Vincent Cassel as a lustful, debauched monarch (he gets the best introduction of any of the characters, emerging from beneath the voluminous skirts of two female courtiers going at it in the back of a carriage). Hearing sweet singing that he erroneously believes to be that of a young woman, he unwittingly courts Dora (Hayley Carmichael), an ancient withered recluse who lives with her equally gnarled crone of a sister (Shirley Henderson, magnificent even under all her layers of old-lady makeup). The final strand features Toby Jones (along with Henderson, the film’s performance MVP) as a king whose devotion to his pretty but petulant daughter (Bebe Cave) is deflected when he begins to obsess over a pet flea, which he gorges and dotes on until it’s the size of a fat sheep.
Throughout all the stories, there are fewer overriding themes than there are recurring motifs, and flashes of a dark Grimm Brothers sensibility, as if Garrone had found all the offcuts that Disney and Hans Christian Anderson had excised from their children’s stories, all the severed toes and talking disembodied heads and people tearing themselves in half in rage (can you tell I was scarred by the discovery of my mother’s Grimm’s Fairy Tales at a young age?) and spliced them all together into one film. It makes for compelling individual scenes of beautiful dreadfulness (the cinematic pantheon of “Carrie“-esque women in evening wear, drenched and matted with blood, needs to make room for two more), but a whole that never truly comes together, especially as it makes a virtue of its impenetrable morality (another thing that sets it far apart from the 20th century tradition of the cinematic fairytale). Without that central structure, the overall film feels nebulous, difficult to trace into patterns and arcs: a horror-dream or a familiar nightmare composed of images you’ve never seen before but that feel collective-unconscious familiar, strung together according to a logic we’ve long forgotten, if we ever knew it.
This amorphous quality is heightened by the cutting. Allusions and thematic parallels that could have been made clearer by simple counterpoint across cuts, are noticeably absent, and too often Garrone relies on the luster of Peter Suschitsky‘s camerawork, or the swooning, hulking, tinkling swoops of Alexandre Desplat‘s excellent score, to smooth over his rough transitions. They’re all the rougher because it’s near impossible to not become more involved in one strand than another, and you feel that momentary disappointment when you leave the one you were enjoying the most. But then sometimes he cuts to a hula-hooping bear, so that’s okay.
In fact, it’s in the micro, scene-by-scene level that the film really lives. There are individual performance moments, like Toby Jones’ brilliantly impish portrayal of the King getting distracted by his friendly flea, or Shirley Henderson’s surprisingly touching sequence wandering through the town in ill-fitting finery begging someone to flay her alive in the hopes it will render her as young and beautiful as her sister (Dora magically transforms into a stunning, lissome Stacy Martin at one point). And there are rich tableaux, like the aftermath of one of Cassel’s nights of indulgence or the iconic image of Hayek in that ornate white room devouring a sea monster’s heart. There are unearthly images, like the identical albino “brothers” smiling at each other underwater. And there are even action set pieces, as men tackle monsters and a gypsy family led by Alba Rohrwacher effect an escape from a lumbering ogre via tightrope.
Speaking of tightropes (another motif that recurs), if there is a single discernible moral, it is perhaps about balance, ironically for such a wildly unbalanced film. Youth and age, birth and death, ferocity and protectiveness are portrayed as being in constant flux, seesawing, never settling, but one constantly coming at the cost of the other. It’s easy to conceive the film as Garrone’s highwire act, and tempting to ascribe its unwieldiness to the director’s instinct that tipping way over to one side only to pull it back at the last second is part of the thrill of the show. But it’s telling that this summation also reduces this extravagant, rich, and often engrossing film to the status of a circus trick: entertaining in the moment, and the result of a great deal of training and talent, but saying very little and leaving little sustain. “Tale of Tales” is magnificent, the way a performing bear can be magnificent. [B]