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Directed and co-written by Matteo Garrone and based on works of 17th century Italian poet Giambattista Basile, Tale of Tales is a deliciously dark and twisted fairy tale come to life. Its disconnected narrative however, keeps it from truly coming together as a movie.
There are three main stories in Tale of Tales, each concerning a separate fictional kingdom. The first follows a queen (Salma Hayek), who is willing to sacrifice anything to have a child, even if her wish leads to death and misery. The second is about a king (Toby Jones) who becomes obsessed with a strange animal, neglecting the desires of his own daughter in the process – and the third deals with another king (Vincent Cassel) whose bottomless lust has him cross paths with two sisters in unusual and unexpected ways.
When viewed on their own merits, all three stories are fascinating. The queen’s tale is perhaps the least interesting, if only because it’s hard to top seeing John C. Reily in a diving suit take on a giant sea monster with a spear, which serves as that particular story’s introduction.
All of them operate on the off-kilter internal logic one would expect out of a fairy tale and because they stay consistent in their oddities and quirks, the worlds and the characters that inhabit them remain grounded.
The problem is that there’s literally nothing that links any of these stories to together, apart from minor supporting characters occasionally appearing in more than one of them. The tale of the king trying to seduce the two sisters without knowing that they are actually old and wrinkled has nothing to do with the tale of the queen who desperately wants a child.
You would think that eventually they would come together in some way but they don’t. The movie’s ending implies that to an extent, but it’s barely touched upon – for the most part, Tale of Tales is content with having three almost completely unrelated stories and seeing how each one plays out.
It’s an odd creative decision, particularly since the movie tells all three narratives concurrently, switching from one to the other seemingly at random. It’s never difficult to follow what’s going on, but as the stories near their endings, one cannot help but wonder what, if anything, was meant to tie them together.
This could have made for a brilliant mini-series, one that devotes a full episode to each tale and lets it unfold before moving on to the next. As it stands, it’s just bizarre. It messes with the pacing and drags down the momentum.
That being said, the stories are worth following. It’s a very visually impressive production that balances a minimalist take on fairy tales with enough grandeur to create a world that’s both vibrant and very melancholy at the same time.
Tale of Tales does not shy away from how brutal fairy tales can be, with plenty of shocking, disturbing and gruesome developments. It’s often morbid, but in a way that holds your attention – you want to just how far it will go and it rarely disappoints. In many respects, it’s essentially a very atmospheric horror movie.
If you look at the sum of its parts, Tale of Tales works on nearly every level – but as a whole, it never finds the rhythm to make its individual stories click. That makes it a disconnected and ultimately somewhat disappointing experience.