From a technical perspective, "Tale of Tales" is a gorgeous film, a visual masterpiece of art design and cinematography. It's also dramatically stillborn. Sort of like the least engaging Terry Gilliam movie ever.
The film was directed by Matteo Garrone, who made a big splash a few years back with his lacerating Neapolitan crime drama "Gomorrah," and adapted from the 17th century fairy tales of Giambattista Basile, author of the earliest known version of "Cinderella.” This big production interweaves three of Basile's stories, there's an emphasis on sex and violence, and the kiddies are not invited.
In one story, the King and Queen of Longtrellis (John C. Reilly and Salma Hayek) are so desperate to produce an heir that they take advice from a mysterious sorcerer who suggests the King kill a sea monster and the Queen eat the great beast's heart.
It works. Her Highness has a high-speed pregnancy that lasts all of 24 hours and produces a son. Weirdly, the cook who prepares the heart also gives birth overnight to a baby boy, who is a dead ringer for the young Prince.
As adolescents, the Prince and the Pauper — both albinos, by the way — are played by real-life twins Christian and Jonah Lees. The boys have a spiritual connection that the Queen tries to break by sending the Pauper off to a foreign land. But the Prince runs away to find him.
Meanwhile, the incredibly horny King of nearby Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel) has fallen for one of a pair of sisters (Hayley Carmichael, Shirley Henderson) he has espied from afar. He doesn't realize that the object of his lust is an old crone, and the sisters wisely conduct all the negotiations for the loss of sister Dora's virginity through a closed door.
The King is not amused when, after a night of bonking, he awakes to find a wrinkled old lady in his bed. He has her tossed from a castle window, but the sheets in which she is wrapped snag her in tree branches and suddenly Dora is transformed into young beauty (Stacy Martin). She then becomes the target of the King’s lust all over again.
Over in another realm, the King of Highhills (Toby Jones) becomes fascinated with a colossal flea. He has the creature skinned and offers the hand of the Princess Violet (Bebe Cave) to any man who can guess the origin of the pelt.
The winner is a hulking ogre (Guillame Delaunay) who drags the poor girl back to his bone-strewn cave in the mountains to be sexually assaulted. Violet plans a desperate escape.
If there are any morals to be taken from these bizarre tales, they eluded this viewer. Things happen randomly and illogically.
The cast is deep but there’s not much they can do. Psychological realism doesn’t exist in this world. The performance style here rests on exaggeration and cartoonish humor, not that any of it is particularly funny.
But, Lord, this movie certainly looks good.