Tale of Tales

by Glenn Erickson Aug 19, 2016

It’s strange, it’s different, and I can see why it wasn’t a theatrical hit… but Matteo Garrone’s superb telling of three very adult, very extreme 17th century folk tales is a special item, beautifully directed and visually splendid.

Tale of Tales
Shout! Factory
2016 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 133 min. / Street Date September 6, 2016 / 22.97
Starring Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones, John C. Reilly, Shirley Henderson, Hayley Carmichael, Bebe Cave, Stacy Martin, Christian Lees, Jonah Lees, Laura Pizzirani, Franco Pistoni, Jessie Cave.
Peter Suschitzky
Film Editor Marco Spoletini
Production Design Dimitri Capuani
Original Music Alexandre Desplat
Written by Edoardo Albinati, Ugo Chiti, Matteo Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso from a book by Giambattista Basile
Produced by Matteo Garrone, Anne Labadie, Jean Labadie, Jeremy Thomas
Directed by Matteo Garrone

Matteo Garrone needs no more endorsement than a mention of his terrific modern gangster film Gomorrah (2008), an epic that makes the awful consequences of underworld power painfully understandable.

Nothing could sound more completely different than his new Tale of Tales. Viewers benumbed by comic book movies and cynical hipster renderings of classic epics — the new Ben-Hur is being marketed as a tale of REVENGE, of all things — may that find the perfect antidote in this intense, gloriously rendered folk tale movie. It follows no present commercial pattern (great!). It tells its stories mostly visually, with elegant imagery reminiscent of classic fairy tale illustrations (better!). The stories don’t boil down to simple moral lessons. Strange events occur because a trio of sovereigns is beset by understandable human weaknesses. Miracles happen, but so does horrid retribution way out of proportion to the wrongdoings involved. Even in fairy tale terms, the weirdness resembles real life — s*** happens when one embraces the fantastic. I found Garrone’s Tale of Tales to be a trifle slow, but wonderfully rewarding. It’s also quite adult and sexually unrestrained — yet not at all exploitative. I know, that sounds like a contradiction.


Three kingdoms apparently exist as neighbors — although the three main stories don’t overlap, characters from one show up briefly in the others, at various shared rituals. The good King of Longtrellis (John C. Reilly) will do anything to make his miserable barren Queen (Salma Hayek) happy, and so follows the instructions of a mysterious necromancer (Franco Pistoni). If the King slays an undersea monster, and its heart is cooked by a virgin, and the Queen eats it, she will immediately bear a beloved child. In the nearby land of Strongcliff, the lecherous King (Vincent Cassel) runs out of maidens to bed, and lusts after a woman he sees far below his castle window, singing a song. The woman, Dora (Hayley Carmichael) and her sister Imma (Shirley Henderson) are old crones, but they so want the attentions of the king that they tease and delay him. Dora finally decides that she can fool the King by pinning her flesh so that she has fewer wrinkles, and stipulating that she give herself to him only in the dark. The King of Highhills (Toby Jones) ignores his spirited daughter Violet (Bebe Cave), who wants nothing more than to be wed to a handsome husband. The King instead dotes on his monster pet flea (!!!), which he has fed with blood and raw meat until it is the size of a wolfhound. His contest to choose a proper mate for Violet is so thoughtless that a horribly inappropriate suitor wins her hand in marriage. Violet wants to kill herself, but must go through with her foolish father’s bargain.

These stories in no way come across as spoofs, nor comic, nor ‘cute.’ The only thing I saw that even hints that a tongue was in someone’s cheek, was when a man was outfitted with a medieval / 20th century diving rig. The moral of Tale of Tales can’t ‘be careful what you wish for,’ because some of the characters aren’t asking for anything outrageous — they just should be a little more cautious about how they go about it. The Kings (and one Queen) are flawed in that they form obsessions. It’s impossible not to like the caring and noble King of Longtrellis, who is willing to risk the impossible to help his missus conceive a child. The Necromancer with the surefire baby-making formula says upfront that magic is not something to be toyed with — like Newton’s third law, every spell has an equal but opposite reaction. The sex-obsessed King of Highcliff is a real slimeball, but for folly he is matched by the women that foolishly deceive him. Their desire to be young and desirable turns into a regular horror story, the kind that even the Brothers Grimm had to soft-pedal when it came time to write their fairy tales. Princess Violet of the third tale is a little naïve in her desire for a perfect Prince Charming, but she’s really the innocent victim of a deadbeat dad more attached to his flea than his own offspring. Even with an intervention and rescue by a group of circus performers, Violet undergoes an ordeal guaranteed to rid any woman of romantic notions about marriage.


Tale of Tales doesn’t explain itself in detail: I had to get the names of the kingdoms from the cast lists. We’re plunked down in the first throne room, and have to figure out what’s going on for ourselves. Queen Longtrellis becomes distraught upon seeing a performer who happens to be pregnant, which throws her into fits of melancholy. King Highcliffe is first seen ravishing a pair of ladies-in-waiting in a carriage en route to a funeral. When the silly King Highhills becomes fascinated by a flea, we can’t believe the story is going in such an odd direction. The picture is a succession of wild and crazy incidents, all told in a stately and serious manner, strictly irony-free. The bizarre but sincere tone washes away twenty years of faux-hip, insufferably pandering fantastic films… it’s like Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, but for more desperate times.

As a production, Tale of Tales is a dazzler. Some Italian-designed fantasies go in for visual overkill but Garrone’s picture has style, class, and also restraint. The costumes are gorgeous and the castles and interiors for the three kingdoms are a pleasure to behold. Forest exteriors look magical, as does an impressive gorge where dwells the sea monster. It looks like an albino mud puppy with a mouthful of crocodile teeth. Are these places sets, or tastefully arranged CGI environments?  We feel like we’re somewhere real, not in a faux-set engineered at ILM or WETA. In the end it comes down to director Matteo Garraone’s precise control over his visuals, which lend each story a different tone. The Longtrellis episode definitely makes us feel like there’ll be Hell to Pay over a child which appears and is born in just one night — especially when we find out that he has a twin, borne to the virgin who cooked the monster’s heart. The resolution of this story is subtle.


The second story — is it as conservative as it seems? The old women looking for youthful adventures get more than they bargain for. Garrone doesn’t hold back a bit from the gory consequences of insane desires. Actually, only in the third story do we feel that we’re absolutely certain exactly what lesson should be learned. That episode ends in an uplift, despite the ordeal suffered by the sweet young Violet. Six-foot, nine-inch Guillaume Delaunay plays a brutal ogre, who gets an even worse deal than Violet, thanks to the thoughtless idiocy of King Highhills.

Bebe Cave’s Violet is the character easiest to identify with, although the entire cast is great. Vincent Cassel is a letch we love to despise, and top-billed Selma Hayek a rather cold, high-maintenance Queen. On screen only briefly, John C. Reilly presents a fine, subtle portrait of husbandly devotion. The amusing Toby Jones is a giddy eccentric, whose immature hobbies will end in good for nobody. He’s exactly the kind of king who would forfeit his crown to his own daughter, just by default. Actress Stacy Martin in part two is good as a transformed Dora. Actually, Shirley Henderson and Hayley Carmichael are so submerged in old age makeup — full body — that we’re not sure who’s who and what is real.

Be prepared for some strange sights suitable only for weird horror movies: a body sewn and pinned into a different shape, a battered, Frankensteinian ogre with parts of his scalp burned away, and a staggering old woman that… well, let’s just be thankful that Garrone puts that scene across with a modicum of restraint. It took me about ten minutes to be seduced by Tale of Tales, and from then on I was hooked, big time. I can predict that an ADD movie-going type will have no patience with it whatsoever. But when this show gets on a roll, it becomes high-quality fantasy-horror filmmaking with an artistic Italian polish.


Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray of Tale of Tales is two-plus hours of jarring fantasy, presented in as beautiful a package as can be imagined. The video scan and encoding flatter the cinematography of ace veteran Peter Suschitzky, And Alexandre Desplat’s music score provides a score of different moods, all slightly unnerving. The ‘making of’ featurette touted on the package box is really a long-form docu showing how involved the shoot was, with a set packed with artisans and designers setting up the various visual wonders. A trailer is included as well.

The audio is in English only, but it looks as most if not all of the actors are speaking in English in the few scenes requiring extended speeches. A trailer is included as well.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Tale of Tales
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Making of docu, trailer
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 17, 2016

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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