Plot holes in films are irksome things, evidence of imperfection. Depending on your attachment to the surrounding material, they can often be forgiven, however. A weakness, sure, but usually not a fatal one, so long as the scale isn’t tipped by their presence too harshly. I can usually overlook plot holes in favour of finding enjoyment around them, especially when it comes to genre cinema, in which the ideas and the presentation may have understandably been prioritised (not that that’s an excuse for sloppiness).
Tale Of Tales, the new fantasy anthology film from Matteo Garrone, contains probably the single most infuriating plot hole I’ve yet encountered. Ever. A moment of staggering narrative carelessness. And, unfortunately, the surrounding material in this instance does little to compensate for its howling presence. The incident occurs in the last half hour of an overlong mess of a film, it involves a length of rope and an escape plan. It is, in the grand scheme of things, insignificant. But by that point there’s little incentive for forgiveness.
Things don’t start out that way. Based loosely on Giambattista Basile’s compendium of fairy stories, Tale Of Tales entwines three narrative set in the same unspecified fantasy land, and all three seem somewhat promising on initial approach.
Salma Hayek is a queen mourning her inability to conceive. A poorly dubbed hooded figure advises that, should she consume the heart of a sea monster cooked by a virgin, she will become pregnant instantaneously. Her gallant husband John C Reilly goes off to slay the beast (in what will surely be, regardless of the rest of the film, one of the greatest sequences of the year).
Elsewhere, diminutive king Toby Jones ignores the needs and wishes of his daughter in favour of an increasing fascination with a flea, which grows to enormous size under his secretive care. When said daughter Violet (Bebe Cave – a find) presses him for a husband, he devises what he thinks is a foolproof strategy to keep her close to home.
Last and by all means least, we have Vincent Cassel as yet another king, drunkenly sleeping his way through all the beauties of his kingdom, who becomes enamoured with an unseen songbird on his grounds. The voice belongs to an old krone who tempts the king further, but can’t show her face for her ugliness. She offers him sight of a finger and no more. Unused to being denied his desires, this only arouses the king’s affections further.
Set ’em up and knock ’em down. Garrone shirks the expected anthology conventions and flits from one story to another in sequence, nudging each one along a little further before returning to the next in til he’s back to the first again. Trouble is that each of these stories become less interesting the further we travel down their respective, meandering paths. Characters are, with virtually no exceptions, unlikable or simply flimsy. No one story has a heroic or particularly charismatic presence.
That might sound all right on paper, but in the telling it leaves precious little for the audience to root for, and in turn, fewer and fewer reasons to care, particularly as each of these tales ends far wide of where they began. If these are morality tales, they’re all rather muddied too. In fact, more than one leaves something of a sour taste in the mouth come their eventual resolution. None of them end with any sense of definitive satisfaction either. It has the feel of listening to someone fervently telling an initially engaging story, only to realise gradually they’re making it up as they go along. There’s no follow-through. No point. Not one shaggy dog story, but three.
And it might be all right if there were whimsy in that, some fun to be had, but Tale Of Tales is – Toby Jones aside (he is the film’s shining MVP) – without much smirk or silliness. What little else there is comes at the expense of poor Vincent Cassel, whose version of playing drunk falls unflatteringly close to a Tommy Wiseau impersonation. It’s been a while since I’ve seen him really light the screen up, but I can’t really remember him being as bad as he is here.
All of which is a bit of a confusing let down. A “what the hell happened?”. Because in terms of production, Tale Of Tales is really very impressive. The heritage locations supply gratuitous production value. The costuming is pretty faultless. See also your other key departments; hair, make-up and so on. And the visual effects are pretty tidy too. It’s all presented through the loving eye of DoP Peter Suschitsky, the master cinematographer behind most David Cronenberg films, oh, and something called The Empire Strikes Back. On a technical level, Tale Of Tales more or less aces the scorecard. Disappointingly, on a substantive level it draws an almost total blank.
All of which makes spending 135 minutes in its company a really arduous affair. It looks as though it ought to be one of the great fantasy films of the decade, one with the kind of crossover clout of, say, Pan’s Labyrinth. But no amount of technical dynamism can hide how woolly it all feels. All dressing, no content.
And then there’s that fucking plot hole. Sitting there over an hour and a half in. Like an horrendous shit on fluffy white carpet. Impossible to ignore because really, when you get right down to it, there’s not a lot else to see.