The leisurely eccentricity of Tale of Tales offers a reprieve from contemporary American films that often utilize fantasy elements as window dressing for heroics in the distorted key of Joseph Campbell’s mythologies. Matteo Garrone loosely adapts several stories collected by the Neapolitan poet Giambattista Basile in the Pentamerone, which inspired the Grimm brothers and others, birthing the modern fairy tale. With this springboard, Garrone returns the fairy tale to its roots in cautionary horror grounded in deep, contradictory, neurotic relationships with gender and patriarchy.
In all of the film’s tales, kings and queens are pitiably myopic people given to ruling according to their desires and whims, often at the expense of themselves and their loved ones, particularly women. In one of the film’s best performances, Salma Hayek plays the Queen of Longtrellis, who demands that her king, played with poignant submissiveness by John C. Reilly, get her pregnant. And for reasons that gracefully evoke free-associative fairy-tale logic, this process involves black magic, the slaying of an underwater dragon, and the queen’s consumption of its heart.
In a conventional contemporary fantasy film, the killing of the dragon would be fodder for a pumped-up action set piece, but Garrone stages it with winsome casualness. The king straps on what appears to be an 18th-century deep-sea diving suit, and descends into the water with a matter-of-factness that suggests that he might as well be shopping for groceries. When the king first encounters the dragon, the creature is sleeping out in the open at the bottom of the water, hauntingly vulnerable, taking the safety of its habitat for granted. Both the dragon and the king have emotional agency in this sequence, as they are, in certain respects, both victims. The images have an eerie calm about them, the blue of the water connoting a kind of ageless, surreal storybook danger, fused with tranquility, which is brutally counterpointed later when the queen eats the dragon’s heart, the organ’s bright red flesh contrasting with the cold white of the palatial dining chamber.
Several moments in Tale of Tales exude such primordial power, laced with a dry absurdism that unexpectedly gives way to tenderness (particularly in a story that’s driven in part by another king’s affection for a flea, which he nurses until it reaches monstrous dimensions). Eventually, though, Garrone’s self-consciously patchwork, one-thing-after-another structure wears thin. The film is almost entirely plot-driven, and one wishes that the various threads more inventively rhymed with one another formally, as the alternation between the tales grows repetitive and even interminable in the second half.
These stories have clearly been selected by Garrone for their thematic similarities, but he forges few emotional or aesthetic crosscurrents between them. His willingness to stage the tales without much in the way of present-day re-contextualization is initially bracing, but it embalms the film in caution.