We gave it a B
There’s a tradition in Italian cinema of what are called “Decameron films”. The height of their popularity was in the 1970s, and they tended to be episodic, set in the Middle Ages, and revolved around little quick-hit morality tales spiced up with a pinch of sex, a dash of comedy, and a soupçon of gore. In Italian director Matteo Garrone’s latest film, the stunning — and stunningly weird — English-language fantasia Tale of Tales, he attempts to turn the once proudly low-brow Decameron genre into museum-quality high art. The results are mixed.
Tale of Tales is presented as three fables woven together through common themes of female desire and the ironic consequences of those desires. In the first, Salma Hayek plays a queen unable to bear a child. Crushed, she turns to a court mystic who tells her that the only way to become pregnant is for her husband, the king (John C. Reilly) to slay a giant sea beast and devour its still-beating heart. Next up is Toby Jones as a slightly daffy monarch who raises a tiny flea as a pet, feeding it his own blood until it grows into the size of a hippo. Meanwhile, his beautiful daughter yearns to be wed and finds herself paired off with a ghastly ogre. In the last, Vincent Cassel plays yet another royal whose unquenchable libido leads him to fall in love (or, at least in lust) with a wrinkled crone whose singing voice enchants him.
Garrone’s previous films (including 2008’s harrowing Gomorrah about the Neapolitan mafia) haven’t hinted at the sort of playful, mischievous whimsy found in Tale of Tales. He is a masterful visual storyteller. Every shot in the film could be framed, hung on the wall of the Uffizi Gallery, and not seem out of place. It’s gorgeous. There’s a sequence of a blood-covered Hayek feasting on the sea serpent’s heart and one of Reilly in an ancient scuba helmet with a trident in his hand stalking his mythological quarry that are still seared into the back of my skull. But the film—despite its O. Henry be-careful-what-you-wish-for twists—feels more like a series of stunning images than a satisfyingly coherent narrative. In Tale of Tales, the director is working in the kaleidoscopic realm of dreams — with all of the beauty and the frustration that comes with them. B