‘Tale of Tales’: Fanciful morality stories tiring, never boring

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In “Tale of Tales,” Salma Hayek plays a queen informed that to bear a son, she must first eat the heart of a sea monster. | IFC FILMS

A barren king and queen, desperate for a child, are given harrowing instructions by a mysterious, gaunt figure in black: Hunt down a sea monster, cut out its heart, have it cooked by a virgin — then eat it.

A triptych of stories pulled from a collection of fairy tales by 17th-century Neapolitan poet Giambattista Basile, “Tale of Tales” is full of such ominous edicts and dark fantasy, rounding out its phantasmagorical cast with a giant insect, a dancing bear, a bat monster, an albino prince and an ogre. Such creatures make for a wild visual experience, but in this case, it’s at the expense of character craft, and the wow factor wears off long before the final reel.

Three interwoven morality tales from separate kingdoms make up “Tale of Tales.” In one, the aforementioned barren royal couple accepts the challenge, but the queen (Salma Hayek) is selfish in her pursuit of a child, and though her greediness results in a son, her victory brings with it unintended consequences. Her albino son has a twin, born of the virgin who cooked the sea monster’s heart, and their spiritual connection threatens the overbearing mother.

The King of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel) is a debauched libertine, reeling drunk in a sea of flesh until a maiden’s song catches his fancy. She plays hard to get, speaking to the king through a locked door and refusing to let him see her, which only electrifies his lust. It’s unknown to him that his maiden is a hag, her body and beauty wrecked from years of labor.

The King of Highhills (Toby Jones) raises a flea as his pet to a monstrous size, then uses its pelt in a bit of trickery designed to keep his young daughter from marrying: Anyone who can guess the beast it belonged to wins the princess’ hand. His game backfires, and his beloved daughter ends up betrothed to a monster he couldn’t have foreseen.

Fairy tales this rich and fanciful call for visuals to match, and Italian director Matteo Garrone rises to the challenge. “Tale of Tales” is a visually resplendent film, at turns painterly and architectural, structured in composition and vibrant in color.

It’s never a boring film to look at, but it is often a tiring one. Running over two hours, the film is bloated with portent and repetition, each story taking too long to get to its inevitable moral. It’s a purely cerebral experience, interesting on a structural level but lacking emotional connection. The prince yearning for his other half, the princess betrothed to an ogre, the lovelorn hag in the wrong skin — all are characters that should elicit an emotional response in sympathetic viewers. But they are kept at a cold remove, and when comeuppance, retribution and fulfillment are finally delivered, it’s with little catharsis.


IFC Films presents a film directed by Matteo Garrone and written by Garrone, Edoardo Albinati, Ugo Chiti and Massimo Gaudioso. Running time: 125 minutes. No MPAA rating. Available on demand and opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.


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