People often remark how the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales are more morbid and horrifying than their Disney versions let on, but I wonder how those stories compare to 17th century medieval Italy’s Pentamerone, a group of fables and folk tales written by Giambista Basile. In it are the earliest versions of fairytales like “Rapunzel,” “Cinderella,” and “Sleeping Beauty,” and are the basis for the Matteo Garrone’s 2015 film, Tale of Tales.
Featuring major players like Salma Hayek, John C. Reilly, Vincent Cassel and Toby Jones, Tale of Tales is a combination of various stories from the Pentamerone, also called Lo Cunto de li Cunti. The connecting theme between all of these stories is obsession: Hayek plays a queen desperate to have a child, and does so with the help of a necromancer. Her obsession to have the child’s love pits her against his accidental twin brother, born from the virgin who helped create the Queen’s son from a spell.
Cassel plays a libertine king who overhears a mysterious woman’s beautiful singing, and lusts for her, while unbeknownst to him the voice belongs to an old woman with a young voice named Dora; Dora subsequently lusts for the king in return and is desperate to win his affection, by tricking him to sleep with her in full darkness. Jones plays a king whose obsessive hobby for feeding a flea human blood eventually kills the flea, and he uses the flea’s hide to test possible suitors for the hand of his teenage daughter, Violet.
This dark, fantastical film is shot-for-shot filled with beautiful visuals, production design and plenty of decorative elements befitting the Baroque period. Each story becomes intertwined at the beginning and end of the film, and its subtle mastery of telling its cautionary tales about excess, lust and pride bring surprising fates for its characters. It also blends in the magical within reality, like a living storybook. But unlike other manifestations of fairytales I’ve seen on the big screen, there’s quite a bit of nudity and kinky sex, too, so I wouldn’t recommend parents introduce this film to kids in hopes of any lesson-learning (yowza).
Tale of Tales is streaming on Netflix, Amazon Prime, iTunes, Youtube and Google Play.