Tale of Tales takes director Matteo Garrone, best known to American audiences for his Naples-based mob drama Gomorrah, in a new direction.
Lavish in its design and lush in its sensuality, Tale of Tales presents three fairy tales from Giambattista Basile, a Neapolitan courtier who wrote in the 1600s.
Garrone tries, with varying degrees of success, to make three tales cohere, but the movie contains too many amazing sights to ignore, and each of the tales offers stern cautionary elements to balance a visual abundance that borders on decadence.
In the first of these tales, Selma Hayek plays a childless queen who's promised by a hooded sorcerer that she'll conceive if her husband (John C. Reilly) slays a sea monster and carves out its heart for later boiling by (what else?) a certified virgin.
For his efforts, the king is mortally wounded, but the sorcerer's promise comes true -- only with a catch. The virgin who boils the monster's heart also becomes pregnant, and gives birth to a carbon copy of the queen's son, a white-haired kid who introduces a Prince and The Pauper dimension to the story.
In the second tale, another king (Toby Jones in an unlikely bit of casting) takes a flea as a beloved pet. By nourishing the flea with an ample supply of blood, the insect grows to an ungodly size and then expires.
The king then decides that he'll marry off his daughter (Bebe Cave) to any suitor who can identify the skin of the recently departed creature, which he has stretched for display in the throne room.
As bad luck would have it, the winner is a hideous looking ogre who carts the princess off to his bone-littered mountain lair.
In the third tale, yet another king (Vincent Cassel) lives a live of unashamed debauchery, bedding as many women as possible.
One day, the king hears the siren call of a beautiful voice coming from a peasant cottage. The king assumes that the voice only can belong to an irresistibly beautiful woman.
The twist: The woman (Hayley Carmichael) is an elderly crone, who lives with her sister. The crone concocts a scheme to sleep with the king. I suppose I needn't tell you that things don't work out as well as she or anyone else might have hoped.
I wouldn't say that each tale is profound, but in sum, the movie dishes out its visual pleasures in such unstintingly large portions that it's almost impossible not to feel sated.