Fairy tales are cruel, and director Matteo Garrone’s surreal and twisted Tale of Tales is no exception. Furthermore, this is an emphatically “grown-up” fairy tale so not one for the children, in case there was any confusion. Upfront warnings for sexual content and gruesome occurrences are hereby given.
Based on 17th Century Italian folk tales compiled by poet by Giambattista Basile, the plot, as the title suggests, is something of an anthology. It begins with a barren Queen making a deal with a sinister, disproportionately limbed figure for a child. He advises her to eat the heart of a sea monster, but that it must first be cooked by a virgin. This plot thread and others gradually play out, including one about a King’s obsession with a flea, another about his spoilt daughter, and yet another about a drunken, promiscuous King (a different one) whose lust brings about an amusingly dark and ultimately horrific tale of mistaken identity.
This highly peculiar mixture of black comedy, misguided romantic yearning, sexual obsession, madness and horror in a fantasy context is never boring, even if it doesn’t quite gel into a coherent whole. Garrone is clearly influenced by the likes of Terry Gilliam, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and definitely Guillermo Del Toro, but his film is nonetheless unique in its own way, reminding the viewer that fantasy stories don’t always revolve around wars or political games over who sits on the throne.
The cast – which includes Salma Hayek, John C Reilly, Toby Jones, Vincent Cassel, Shirley Henderson, Christian and Jonah Lees, Bebe Cave, Hayley Carmichael and Stacy Martin – all do very well. The film is visually stunning, making good use of locations and visual effects, and Alexandre Desplat contributes a fine music score.
“Be careful what you wish for” appears to be the overall moral, in specific relation to marriage, having children and also longing to be young again. The result is a fantastically strange and offbeat affair which, whilst definitely not for everyone, appealed to me a great deal.