Tale of Tales finds an overextended director beached upon the outlines of a form for which he has no apparent capacity or skill.
Running less than 30 minutes in length, Yuriy Norshteyn’s 1979 Tale of Tales is an animated masterwork of stunning range and complexity. Presenting an entrancing narrative in a musical, loosely figurative style, it subtly shapes a rich assessment of how stories reflect and sustain life through its darker passages. Mateo Garrone’s identically titled film, while stretching four times longer and boasting a $15 million budget and several big name stars, doesn’t manage to achieve any comparable sense of grandeur. Like the blandly designed, generally indistinguishable castles in which its stories are set, the film suggests a large outlay of funds frittered away on a white elephant slab of textureless whimsy, with little sense of how to transform its budget into something emotionally expansive or genuinely fantastical. Instead, it offers the spectacle of another director of reliable mid-tier art-house entertainments floundering in an expensive new venue, the inherent promise of these sturdy old parables squandered via a bloated, sermonizing take on human foibles.
As with the characters in Garrone’s previous films, whose innate weaknesses lead them into addictive spirals of self-destructive pleasure seeking, each of these three tales involves an object of obsession looming larger and larger, gradually driving the obsessor into something resembling madness. In the first, the Queen of Longtrellis (Salma Hayek), distressed by her inability to conceive, goes to dangerous lengths to give birth to a child, who ends up being far from the precious love object she’d imagined. In the second, the dissipated, oversexed King of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel, lording over an adjacent fiefdom) fixates on a mysterious woman with a beautiful singing voice, not realizing she’s secretly a grotesquely-aged hag. In the third, yet another ruler (Toby Jones, in nearby Highhills) defies his daughter’s wishes and promises her to a monstrous ogre after becoming obsessed with a gigantic flea. The last story in particular sums up the whole daffy enterprise, spinning a yarn that’s outlandish enough to have great potential if played in the right tone, and which somehow ends up as a terminally boring bit of toothless fairy-tale satire.
This is unfortunate, since Tale of Tales at first possesses a likeably offbeat premise, capable of taking its star creator way outside the realm of festival-circuit respectability. Yet Garrone ends up so far afield that he strays into the other side of the matinee universe, plunging into the sort of tedious, vaguely-sketched dream world familiar from recent high-fantasy tentpoles. Spinning out the perfunctorily interconnected stories via set pieces centered around weird CG or animatronic creatures, marked with grotesque violence and broad opera bouffe emotion and physicality, the director doesn’t provide any of the specificity or vision needed to make any of this stuff stick.
Gomorrah, Garrone’s 2008 breakthrough and still his best film, worked so well because it rooted a fabulist story structure down into the most miserable depths of modern realism, detailing a dry-rot corruption eating away at the already flimsy composition of Neapolitan society. In 2012’s Reality, he took this theme further, outlining an exaggerated middle class milieu in which the acceptance of everyday malfeasance and the pursuit of stardom as an end in itself had made the spectacle of life lived broadly and badly into a viable entertainment product. The idea reaches a terminal point in Tale of Tales, where a similarly caustic message is conveyed via a fantasy structure that bears no ostensible relationship to actual reality, only connected through the winking parallels evinced by these frivolously constructed bubble kingdoms. The result is exhausting in a manner familiar to allegorical fable stretched far beyond its effectiveness, finding an overextended director beached upon the outlines of a form for which he has no apparent capacity or skill.