ON PAPER, Tale of Tales has more than enough to recommend it: John C. Reilly killing a napping sea dragon. Salma Hayek eating the dragon's bloody heart in order to impregnate herself. Toby Jones petting a dog-sized flea that he's been nurturing since it was a flea-sized flea. Vincent Cassel pitching woo to a pair of elderly sisters who stitch and flay themselves in order to look younger. Albino twins communicating with each other via a wellspring that bursts forth from the roots of a tree. A murderous ogre chasing a princess across a tightrope.
There's enough pure visual interest in Tale of Tales to fuel dozens of movies, which makes sense, since it's distilled from the Pentamerone, a 17th-century book of fairy tales collected by Neapolitan poet Giambattista Basile. The work, though essentially unknown to modern English readers, was one of the first collections of fairy tales ever published, and had a substantial influence on the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault. These are grisly, gruesome, jarringly surreal stories that contain sharp satirical edges in their baroque opulence. And they're presented onscreen with near-painful sobriety by director Matteo Garrone (Gomorrah, Reality), who perhaps thought these strange images could speak for themselves.
Unfortunately, the narrative is fractured across three unrelated stories (a framing technique that implies the primary characters are part of the same royal family is merely confusing), and the film, while stunning to look at, feels inert, like a series of stills. Much of the time, that's enough: The settings are like paintings come to life, with impossible landscapes and architecture depicted in granular detail. But when Garrone's film is over, you feel less like you've inhabited these bizarre worlds and more like you've been shown a vivid sketchbook of them. These are stories that should haunt your dreams; instead, they're weird but temporary diversions.