Opening with a storybook wedding, Matteo Garrone’s Reality (12) was about nothing less than the deluded nature of contemporary popular culture, and specifically how our obsession with “reality” television has turned daily life into fantasy. With his latest, Garrone doubles down and plunges heedlessly into the world of genuine fairy tales, adapting three stories by 17th-century Neapolitan yarn spinner Giambattista Basile, an acknowledged influence on Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm.
Despite the fantasyland trappings, you won’t find traces of pixie dust here. Low-budget but voluptuous, Garrone’s first English-language film zigzags between three moral tales set in different kingdoms: an infertile queen (Salma Hayek) will do anything to produce an heir—including devouring the pulsating heart of a freshly killed sea monster—and, later, anything to ensure she keeps him to herself; an infantile king (Toby Jones) hands his daughter over to a literally monstrous marriage; and a carousing king (Vincent Cassel) wedges himself violently between two elderly sisters due to his overworked libido.
Love and family are astonishing letdowns for all concerned. With a focus on corporeal gore and psychological realism, Tale of Tales attempts to re-Grimmify the fairy tale, rather than fracture or deconstruct it à la the sly Into the Woods or The Princess Bride. The result is a film that doesn’t wink at the viewer as much as stare aghast at the self-interested evil that humans do.