Film review – Il racconto dei racconti / Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone, 2016)

Tale of Tales is a film that merges three fantasy tales from Italian storyteller Giambattista Basile’s book Pentamerone. The results are mixed.

The first, The Enchanted Doe, stars Salma Hayak as the Queen of Darkwood, who is struggling to have a child with her King, played by John C. Reilly. Taking the advice from a necromancer, the King sets off to capture the heart of a sea monster for his Queen to eat. Doing so brings her the child she desires, but this comes at a cost.

The second tale, The Flea, stars Toby Jones as a king seemingly reluctant to find a husband for his daughter Violet (Bebe Cave). Secretly, he is nurturing a flea in his chambers, growing it to an enormous size, but in doing so neglects his daughter. 

The final tale, The Flayed Old Woman, stars Vincent Cassel as a king with an insatiable lust for all women he lays eyes on. He is attracted by one woman (Hayley Carmichael), however, that he cannot see but can hear. As she sings a beautiful lament from the shadows of the streets of his kingdom, so begins an addiction to seeking her out to fulfil his desires. Fearful of him seeing her true form, she tries to push him away, only for his desire to grow stronger.

The three stories run entirely separately until the final scene, which is sort of a throwaway tidbit that attempts but fails to tie it all together. The overall result is something akin to a highbrow fantasy take on ‘Love, Actually’, whereby several separate storylines weave in and out of one another without significantly benefiting from it. Indeed, the sum may well be less than the parts.

The opening scenes concentrate almost exclusively on Salma Hayak’s unfolding story, to the point where when we first see Vincent Cassel it’s confusing to work out how he fits into the rest of the story. A few moments later it becomes obvious (sort of) that he’s the king of another kingdom, though we have to deduce that ourselves. Perhaps I’m just used to being spoon-fed too much, but I was confused.

The Flea segments are painfully slow, with Toby Jones feeling a little wasted as he tries and fails to inject some life into a largely lifeless story.

Hayley Carmichael rises above the dross to give a starring turn as the old woman Dora, with segments largely full of wit and humour. Vincent Cassell adds a lot to these scenes, lifting them with a knowing amount of irony that just about makes the film bearable.

It is interesting that the director Matteo Garrone has stated that he had worked on ideas for a few other stories from the same source material. In my opinion, these tales would work significantly better broken up and serialised. There is some good work here but it’s hard to get sucked in by one faltering tale, let alone three.

A visually stunning film that fails to ignite the interest, an issue I blame mainly on poor editing and a disappointing adaptation of some highly respected source material.

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