Before the Brothers Grimm perfected the bedtime horror story and psychologists turned fairy tales into Freudian templates, there was Giambattista Basile, a 17th-century Neapolitan poet who penned fantastic fables of cursed maidens, magical creatures and the occasional Faustian bargain involving people giving birth to puppies. His influence can be seen in everything from the folklore canon to Disney's princess-industrial complex, though you probably wouldn't want to show youngsters this triptych adaptation of his work by Italian director Matteo Garrone. Unless, of course, your moppet has been dying to see Salma Hayek gorge herself on a giant, bloody sea monster's heart in living color — in which case, your family movie-night selection is now in the bag.
Hayek is the star of the first story, playing a queen so desperate to conceive a child that she sends her husband (John C. Reilly) on a quest for that aforementioned leviathan organ; according to a local sorcerer, consuming the meat — once it's cooked by a virgin, naturally — will cure her fertility problems ASAP. Things do not go as planned. The second tale involves a perpetually horny king (French actor Vincent Cassel, getting the film's best introduction) who becomes entranced by the voice of a woman he hears. What he doesn't know is that his lady love is an ancient crone, but she and her sister have a way to fool the regent. Things do not go as planned. Lastly, we watch a daffy royal (Toby Jones) foster a pet flea as it grows to St.-Bernard size; when the pet shuffles off this mortal coil, he uses the skin as part of a test to marry off his daughter (Bebe Cave). Things, as you might have guessed, do not go as planned.
Those who know Garrone primarily as the director of 2008's Gomorrah, a 360-degree sociological procedural on Southern Italy's Mafia (think The Wire does the cosa nostra), will be startled by his facility for full-fledged, what-the-fuck fantasy here; fans of the marquee-name cast will wonder about the fits their respective agents pitched after seeing what their clients signed up for. But gory, sex-and-violence–fueled takes on the sort of stuff that normally graces underage reading hours surprisingly suit everyone involved, even when the narrative strands stall or sputter; at its best, Tale of Tales reminds you that fairy tales have always been fractured, and filled with the stuff of nightmares starting from the beginning. (The original translated title of Basile's tome, "Entertainment for Little Ones," could not be more ironic when applied here.)
And though the movie occasionally gets a little too enamored of its own visuals at the expense of its storytelling — though given how sumptuous Peter Suschitsky's cinematography, Dimitri Capuani's production design and Alessia Anfuso's set design is, you can't blame the swooning — the aesthetic never falls into the goth-chic clichés of recent dark revisionist takes on everybody from Snow White to Little Red Riding Hood. What Garrone & co. have concocted is a Grand Guignol pop-up storybook, full of metaphorical dark woods and morality plays. Enter, and you'll see why it's worth its weight in sea monster hearts.