"The tale is not beautiful if nothing is added to it" reads the Tuscan proverb Italo Calvino quoted in his study Italian Folktales. In director Matteo Garrone's vision of Giambattista Basile's Neapolitan fairy stories, Tale of Tales, there is certainly much added.
First off, who could resist the extravagant period costuming and set pieces lit to mimic the works of Italian Baroque painters? Garrone also works in surrealist elements. John C. Reilly as the King of Longtrellis, killing a serpent for his wife has the look of a dusty Wes Anderson scene and the sound design of a monster movie. Salma Hayek, as the Queen, methodically devouring the serpent's heart, could be a Marina Abramović performance piece.
As for that organ she's eating: It's supposed to make the barren Queen immediately pregnant. We're told there are equal and opposite consequences, but in true fairy-tale fashion, there's zero indication that a virgin servant girl will then give birth to the Queen's son's albino twin.
The story spirals out from there, intertwining the trials of the pasty prince and his pauper brother with those of neighboring kingdoms, one of which holds a sex-crazed king (Vincent Cassel) terrified of old women and being alone. The king mistakes a hag (Hayley Carmichael) for a pretty young thing, and cringe-worthy courtship scenes follow, including some "skin handling" -- flappy skin folded and flayed -- on par with Cronenbergian body horror.
The action is truly thrilling, a marriage of practical effects and the mentality that anything can happen. The sets seem purposefully theatrical, the set pieces like lavish stage show. All this is to say, Tale of Tales has the makings of a cult classic.