“Italy’s film industry is enjoying something of a renaissance lately, though honestly it’d have to be in order for Matteo Garrone to pull together the dough that must have been necessary to craft this exorbitant fairy tale triptych,” begins Blake Williams at Ioncinema. “Lurid, lush, and ludicrous, Tale of Tales works from Giambattista Basile’s 17th century collection of fairy tales of the same name, illustrating the ridiculous and superficial gloom of the ruling class. Skin and its mutilation is a major motif here, though that ultimately becomes ironic given that Garrone rarely gets below the surface of these curious concoctions.”
For David Jenkins at Little White Lies, “the film comes across as a gaudy, bawdy descendent to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s trilogy of life (which was based on the work of Chaucer), particularly in the way it explores the often eccentric ways in which humans derive happiness from the world. Though the subjects on show include swaddling parents, unbridled vanity, the spiritual bond between siblings and the social divide between rich and poor, Tale of Tales is an all inclusive feature, opening its bejeweled arms to sea monsters, killer giant bats, ogres, fire breathers, shape-shifting witches and even a house-trained flea with gigantism.”
“It is gloriously mad, rigorously imagined, visually wonderful: erotic, hilarious and internally consistent.” The Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw: “Ovid is mulched in with Hansel, Gretel, the Beauty, the Beast, the Prince, the Pauper, in no real order. At times, Garrone seemed to have taken inspiration from Michelangelo Antonioni’s own fabular tale The Mystery of Oberwald—at others, it felt like he had deeply inhaled the strange and unwholesome odor still emanating from Walerian Borowczyk’s Immoral Tales. But there’s also a bit of John Boorman’s Excalibur, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Blackadder, The Company of Wolves, the Tenniel illustrations for Alice in Wonderland… and Shrek.”
At the Playlist, Jessica Kiang gives the film a B and outlines its three narratives:
The first story involves Salma Hayek‘s beautiful queen, who, along with her devoted husband the King (John C. Reilly), follows a cowled shaman’s instructions and experiences an overnight full-term pregnancy, although so does the servant abetting the plan. Sixteen years later, the two children, one a prince, the other a servant’s bastard, are identical (Christian and Jonah Lees) and inseparable, much to the chagrin of Hayek’s haughty, ferociously maternal Queen. The second strand features Vincent Cassel as a lustful, debauched monarch (he gets the best introduction of any of the characters, emerging from beneath the voluminous skirts of two female courtiers going at it in the back of a carriage). Hearing sweet singing that he erroneously believes to be that of a young woman, he unwittingly courts Dora (Hayley Carmichael), an ancient withered recluse who lives with her equally gnarled crone of a sister (Shirley Henderson, magnificent even under all her layers of old-lady makeup). The final strand features Toby Jones (along with Henderson, the film’s performance MVP) as a king whose devotion to his pretty but petulant daughter (Bebe Cave) is deflected when he begins to obsess over a pet flea, which he gorges and dotes on until it’s the size of a fat sheep.
“As it happens, this isn’t the first time Garrone has juggled multiple Neapolitan stories,” notes Variety‘s Peter Debruge. “In Gomorrah, the director aggressively cut back and forth among five separate strands, which makes Tale of Tales feel downright classical by comparison. Meanwhile, the director’s intervening project, Reality, served as a bridge of sorts, spinning one man’s obsession with TV celebrity into a grand moral fable. With this project, because few readers are up to speed these days on Basile’s work, Garrone and his co-writers are free to lift what they like from the poet and invent the rest. They’ve certainly remained true to the spirit of the source material, which deemed rape and murder to be suitable subjects for kids.”
“Doused in luxuriant colors, elaborate costumes and fantasy décor, the scenes are wonderfully integrated into the Baroque architecture of Sicily, Apulia and Lazio, though some of the Escher-like castles clinging to hillsides could be CGI work,” suggests Deborah Young in the Hollywood Reporter. “Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography ably creates a world of the imagination by blending astonishing (and real) Italian Baroque interiors with Dimitri Capuani’s outstanding production design and Massimo Cantini Parrini’s eccentric and amusing period costumes (some from the Tirelli collection.) Underlining the poetic dimension of the film is a haunting original score by composer Alexandre Desplat.”
There are definitely “CGI effects galore,” Barbara Scharres assures us at RogerEbert.com. “There are directors who can make these ingredients the stuff of magic, but sadly, the only magic Garrone achieves involves laying an egg with this clunker.”
Screen‘s Lee Marshall suggests that “parents would be well advised not to let their progeny anywhere near it. But it’s this unearthing of the strange power of fairy tales to stir up raw emotions and buried instincts that makes Garrone’s strange, original, uneven but still impressive follow-up to Reality such a memorable cinematic experience.”
“With some of the best practical effects this side of Pan’s Labyrinth, as well as castle scenery and surrounding forestry that may as well stem from remnants of the Into the Woods set, Garrone’s movie is blatantly derivative while refashioning its material into his own satisfying playground,” finds Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn. “Despite the discombobulated structure, the filmmaker manages to create a fully involving world.”
More from Gregory Ellwood at HitFix and from Camillo De Marco at Cineuropa, where Vittoria Scarpa asks Garrone what’s drawn him to Basile. “He’s a writer I’ve always been familiar with, nothing short of a genius. His stories struck me for the beauty of their characters, their visual richness, their originality. Deciding to venture into fantasy in Italy today is an unconscious, masochistic choice, but in my artistic process it came quite naturally: in my previous films I started with reality and ended up in a fantasy world, here I tried to do the opposite. As a painter, I found that wealth of images resembled my own work, just like the mix of reality and fantasy, comedy and tragedy.”
Variety‘s Nick Vivarelli asks Garrone, “What were your cinematic or aesthetic references for the film?” Garrone: “First of all Game of Thrones, then Mario Bava and Pasolini’s The Hawks and the Sparrows and some of his shorts. I also had Goya’s Caprichos in my study while I was writing the screenplay.” Next question: “Could Tales become a TV series?” Garrone: “Sure, or a second film. There is so much material. We even started writing scripts for the some of the other tales.”
Updates: “Garrone’s film takes no new perspective on how to make the cinema feel or move like a fairy tale,” writes Notebook editor Daniel Kasman. “Surely these tales take far less time to read or tell than it takes to watch this film. A vigor is missing, as is the sense of a contemporary vernacular mixing with something older. Feigning stories-within-stories, the effect is of several full episodes of flat, internationally co-produced television cross-edited into one big narrative.”
But for the Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin, “Tale of Tales dances on a razor’s edge between funny and unnerving, with sequences of shadow-spun horror rubbing up against moments of searing baroque beauty. The result is a fabulously sexy, defiantly unfashionable readymade cult item.”
“The reverential tone and slow pace take some warming to,” grants Time Out‘s Dave Calhoun, “but there’s much to delight as Tale of Tales takes hold—not least Garrone’s belief in the power of these stories to travel through the years.”
Tales is “deeply odd but also oddly stirring,” finds Tim Grierson at Paste. “The fantastical seems to have tapped into something more primal and inspired with Garrone, resulting in a film that may be uneven but is always nimbly unpredictable.”
Garrone “certainly didn’t skimp on the surreal images,” writes Kyle Buchanan, introducing a list of 13 of them at Vulture.
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, dispatching to the AV Club: “It’s a mess of neat practical effects and shoddy digital compositions, ingenious storytelling and atrocious dialogue, rich with half-baked ideas and unexplained refractions, with mismatched accents and competing vocal inflections cascading over a luxurious Alexandre Desplat score. It is funny, mostly intentionally, and occasionally off-putting in a way that’s hard not to admire.”
At the House Next Door, James Lattimer suggests that Tale might “have ticked most of the boxes for an opening film: a gaggle of stars, a certain commercial potential, and the warm glow of largely unwarranted self-satisfaction…. Perhaps the true problem with Garrone’s film is the unrealistic expectations set up by its title: If you’re going to call your film Tale of Tales, you might want to brush up on your storytelling. As it is, it would seem that all the magic in the realm can’t quite transform these three trifling tales into much more than a glitzy bauble.”
“As Pasolini amply demonstrated,” writes Giovanni Marchini Camia at the Film Stage, “the grotesque style of such tales demands a healthy dose of irony to work on film. When Garrone allows for such irony, Tale of Tales shines…. Unfortunately, Garrone plays it straight too much of the time and by treating his subject matter with self-important seriousness, he undercuts his fantasy, which often devolves into a stultifying farce.”
“Garrone’s film is defiantly odd, consistently striking and often luminous,” finds John Bleasdale at CineVue.
“Garrone just randomly cuts to someone else every so often, killing the momentum every time,” sighs Mike D’Angelo at the Dissolve. “Ideally, he’d have made three consecutive shorts with a total running time of perhaps an hour: 30 minutes for ‘The Flea,’ 15 minutes each for the others. But that isn’t marketable, even at a festival.”
Buzzfeed‘s Alison Willmore warns that “it takes a while to settle into the fact that there’s little underneath its strange, stunning surfaces…. Sometimes uniting themes threaten to emerge, about arrogance, or controlling parents, or vanity, but they never really do, and in the end, the tales are really just three separate, phantasmagoric ones, pretty, but never fitting together as a greater whole.”
Updates, 5/15: “Tale of Tales evokes the vibrancy and unabashed indulgence of late Fellini,” writes Adam Cook at Movie Mezzanine, “but without the fluent poetics to make the film feel intricately woven instead of crudely patched together. In the end, no one seems quite as convinced as Garrone himself, who naively and confidently directs this flat and feeble fantasy.”
In his dispatch to Filmmaker, Aaron Hillis has a fresh new list of “visually lavish costume-and-effects spectacles” that Tale evokes: “Pan’s Labyrinth, The Cell, The Princess Bride, the oeuvres of Terry Gilliam and Alejandro Jodorowsky, maybe even Krull.” Tale is “luridly entertaining, but has as much on its mind as a shiny new Marvel Universe cash grab.”
“The humor feels waterlogged, the connection among the tales too vague for the undertow that dark comedy and good storytelling can simulate,” finds Grantland‘s Wesley Morris.
Marc van de Klashorst for the International Cinephile Society: “If you take away the lavish and thickly laid on artistic veneer, there is a simple but truthful heart beating in this film, aside from the one that is eaten. It manages to have a little fun at the expense of aristocracy, but it doesn’t go much deeper than that, and it doesn’t have to. These tales were always meant to thrill and bewonder, enchant and entertain, and Garrone does not have loftier goals for them.”
Update, 5/18: “A colleague summed it up as a ‘Cannes popcorn movie,’ implying that it was an elaborate bit of fluff that’s just smart enough for this smarty-pants crowd.” The Voice‘s Stephanie Zacharek: “But I think the movie’s ambition and grace takes it further than that. Tale of Tales is opulent and dusty at once: The costumes look lived in rather than just put on, and the sequence in which Reilly sinks to the bottom of the ocean in his heavy iron suit, to surprise the colossal, somnambulant sea beast, is a feverish, misty vision of wonder and horror. That royal pet flea, with its pinky-gray skin (this isn’t like any flea you’ve ever seen), is the sort of half-charming, half-menacing creature that might have been dreamed up by Guillermo del Toro. Overall, the picture has a vaguely sinister, erotic energy: I guess you could take mature, well-adjusted kids to see it, but I probably wouldn’t.”
Updates, 5/19: “Should we worry that it doesn’t leave much of an aftertaste?” wonders Donald Clarke in the Irish Times. “The recent Cannes entry that Tale of Tales most resembles is, perhaps, Damián Szifron’s rampaging Wild Tales. Both put a matrix of stories on the screen. Both deal in black humor. Neither will change how anybody thinks about cinema. Great festivals should, however, make room for such entertainments.”
For Alex Ramon at PopMatters, “Tale of Tales emerges as blissfully enjoyable, and its unevenness becomes part of the wildness of the ride.”
At Filmmaker, Ariston Anderson has five questions for Garrone.
Update, 5/20: “The densely fantastical mise-en-scene appears to be inspired by The Princess Bride,” writes Glenn Heath Jr. for the L, “but I found it closer to the oeuvre of Thomas Kinkade, whose cheesy landscape paintings have adorned American shopping malls for years. Maybe that was Garrone’s point.”