Part of the thrill of any given movie derives from not knowing where the narrative is going. This is true of Tale of Tales, Gomorrah director Matteo Garrone’s English language debut, based on 17th-century stories by the Neapolitan writer Giambattista Basile, who inspired the Brothers Grimm and is now relatively unknown. Whenever you feel you have figured out one story line, it will switch perspectives or introduce a new memorable and darkly fantastic image. So the most one should know of the three stories are their beginnings.
In one, a queen and king (Salma Hayek and John C. Reilly) are in desperate need for a child, and so the queen makes a lethal bargain. In another, a lustful and sexually decadent king (played with hilarious fervor by Vincent Cassel) becomes smitten by the voice of a woman (Hayley Carmichael) without seeing what she looks like. And finally, another monarch (Toby Jones) tries to find a suitor for his daughter (Bebe Cave) but becomes distracted nurturing a surprising choice for a pet, whose size greatly grows by the hour.
Garrone has a knack for spending enough time with each story, arriving at a cliff-hanger before checking in on one of the other stories. He spaces them out with equal parts humor and horror. The extremes hit because Garrone portrays all tones consistently, like a wry deadpan elder spinning a fairy tale, even during the nasty parts. The performances, no matter how heightened, feel grounded because the actors effortlessly evoke pathos, and we feel as though these surreal twists and turns are happening to real people. (It helps that it’s filmed on real locations in Italy.) Even the creatures, created with minimal CGI, appear real and have a tactile feel to them. The gore, when it comes, is visceral and disarming.
What ultimately emerges are the stories of women across a variety of circumstances and with a wide variety of complex emotions. They yearn, they plot, they love. The men are presented much more simply. In the three kings, you have three different kinds of fools: Cassel is the insatiable cad, Reilly is the spineless puppet, and Jones is the doddering old man. If these are moralistic tales, the lessons are meant for the women. The morals are never spelled out but left for the audience to contemplate through the flaws in the heroines. One tale ends with a sting, another ends in triumph, and the third concludes somewhere in the middle. All of them linger and will maybe even enter your dreams, like the best bedtime stories do.