So few Italian films make it Stateside that it’s cause for celebration—if not the eating of a nearly raw sea monster’s heart—when a terrific one appears. Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales is a lavish, imaginative fantasy based on the pre-Grimm fairytales of early-seventeenth-century Neapolitan poet and courtier Giambattista Basile. Salma Hayek plays a morose queen so desperate for a child that her doting husband—played by John C. Reilly, looking cockeyed with love, like a lovestruck teenager—undertakes a deadly mission that he has been assured will result in a pregnancy: He drops to the bottom of the sea in one of those spooky old-fashioned diver’s suits to kill a beast lurking there, a surly behemoth the color of white marble. The creature’s heart must be fed to the queen, and when it’s presented to her on a platter, red and oozy and barely cooked, she tears into it with her hands, gnawing away at with gusto.
And that’s just for openers. Vincent Cassel plays the libidinous king of a neighboring land, a libertine who has become bored with outdoor orgies and the like. When he hears the seductive singing of a creature whom he believes to be a fair maiden, he vows to have her in his bed, wooing her with jewels and dulcet promises. Eventually, she does become his bride—she’s played by Stacy Martin, of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac— but because this is a fairytale, nothing is as it seems, not even Cassel’s demure, ivory-skinned bride. Meanwhile, another kingdom over, Toby Jones plays a ruler who becomes so enthralled with his pet flea that he ignores his sweet but rather simpering daughter (Bebe Cave), who is eventually married off to a—well, you should see that for yourself.
Garrone is most famous for his 2008 gangster drama Gomorrah, but Tale of Tales—which is in English, and which is chiefly an Italian production, with co-producers from France and the UK—is a far different animal. This is definitely a fairytale for grown-ups: It simmers with a mad, vibrating erotic energy, and its color palette, opulent and dusty at once, might be summed up as faded red-and-gilt boudoir. There are many visual wonders to sink into here: In that Jules Verne-style metal suit, Reilly’s king, moving in slow-motion at the bottom of the ocean as if spellbound, is the center of a tableau of muted horror and drifty magic. And Jones’s flea, with its bright button eyes and pinky-gray skin, is half endearing, half repulsive, a creepy-crawly movie critter that’s also a flight of fancy. All fairytales have hidden meanings and motives, expressing everything from repressed desire to frustration with societal norms. There are doubtless hundreds of hidden archetypal complexities in Tale of Tales—but to bask in its weird, warped beauty is pleasure enough.