“Tale of Tales,” Matteo Garrone’s comic-fantasy triptych loosely based on Giambattista Basile’s 17th-century collection of the same name, is so rigorously meaningless, so magnificently silly, so resistant to serious interpretation, that it can be difficult to know what to say about it. Watching it brought to mind critic Andrew Sarris’s description of Cecil B. DeMille as ”the last American director who enjoyed telling a story for its own sake.” Not having seen any of Garrone’s previous films, I couldn’t say whether he can generally be described as a story-for-its-own-sake sort of guy, but in the current era, when even our comic-book blockbusters invite a certain amount of thematic unpacking, “Tale of Tales”’s spectacular meaninglessness feels singular.
Garrone tells three fairy tales set in three different kingdoms, but his choice of stories seems almost arbitrary. 1.) A queen (Salma Hayek) performs a bizarre ritual to make herself pregnant, giving birth to a son at the same time that a virgin gives birth to his identical twin. 2.) A king (Vincent Cassel) becomes infatuated with a peasant woman because of her beautiful singing voice, but she is actually quite ugly. 3.) Another king (Toby Jones) is more interested in his pet flea than in his daughter, which results in her being married off to an ogre. Garrone ping-pongs back and forth between these three kingdoms throughout the film, pushing each story in strange, discursive directions. After a while, one starts to wonder: Why these tales? And why tell them together?
Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe, like DeMille, Garrone just wants to tell us some stories while astounding us with his spectacular visuals. But that means that “Tale of Tales” lives and dies on the quality and quantity of its spectacle, and herein lies the problem, because while “Tale of Tales” contains a number of exceptional images (Salma Hayek chowing down on a massive heart, Toby Jones caring for a giant flea like it’s his pet dog), it isn’t nearly grand enough, crazy enough, or fun enough. The exaggerated period costumes and gorgeous medieval castles create a suitably majestic environment for tales of sea monsters and cursed albino twins, but Garrone paces things a bit too slowly, drawing out each scene a beat too long, and, for a movie featuring ogres, giant bugs, and Vincent Cassel fellating a woman’s finger, “Tale of Tales” feels oddly restrained, as if Garrone was afraid of losing the audience by going too big, too bold.
But that’s just what this sort of material demands. Tell a dozen stories, explode our eyeballs, show us something we haven’t seen before. Tales of the impossible should be liberating, offering an essentially blank canvas on which to project a director’s deepest fears and darkest obsessions. But Garrone feels oddly cowed here, content to pull a few stories from the Basile and dramatize them conventionally, undangerously. At times, Garrone seems to be aiming to balance his fantasy with comedy—the casting of actors who have excelled at comedy in the past, like Reilly, Hayek, and Jones, would seem to bear this out—but this rarely comes off. A number of scenes seem to want to shock us into comedy, but, at best, they play as just amusingly odd.
“Tale of Tales” ultimately feels like a missed opportunity. Garrone amassed a substantial budget, assembled a great cast, clothed them in the finest costumes, scouted the most beautiful locations, and yet his film feels like just a pleasant lark, as if Garrone found a gorgeous leather-bound copy of Basile’s book and proceeded to doodle in the margins.