One of the earliest and grisliest scenes in "Tale of Tales," a fitfully entrancing English-language fantasy from the Italian writer-director Matteo Garrone, is what you might call an offal sight: A queen (played by a severe-looking Salma Hayek) sits in an all-white room, devouring the heart of a freshly slain sea monster. The queen may be clad in funereal black, as befits her status as a new widow, but any suggestion of grief is refuted by the smear of blood on her face and the fierce, almost sexual hunger with which she tears into the creature's flesh.
There is no shortage of such creatures in "Tale of Tales" — here be ogres and witches, deep-sea behemoths and giant insects — but Garrone leaves little doubt about who the real monsters are. It's surely no coincidence that each of the film's three loosely entwined narratives — plucked from a book of 50 fairy tales collected by the 17th century Neapolitan poet and courtier Giambattista Basile — is set in motion by the whims of a cruel, self-deluding and very human monarch.
In another yarn, set in the neighboring realm of Highhills, a foolish king (Toby Jones) ignores his bright and beautiful daughter, Violet (Bebe Cave), and nurtures an unhealthy attachment to his pet flea, which soon swells to enormous proportions. Meanwhile, the lascivious king of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel) falls for what he thinks is a fair maiden, seduced by her lovely singing voice. She turns out to be an old crone named Dora (Hayley Carmichael), who schemes with her more naive sister, Imma (Shirley Henderson), to make the most of this rare opportunity.
But the most ruthless ruler of them all is Hayek's queen, coldly sacrificing everything — her soul, her husband (played briefly by John C. Reilly) and certainly her table manners — so as to conceive the child that has long eluded her. (An elaborate recipe for childbirth is not the only respect in which the film suggests a Baroque spin on "Into the Woods.") Sixteen years later, however, the queen's teenage son, Elias (Christian Lees), will continue to elude her still — demonstrating, quite conclusively, how dangerous it can be to get what you wish for.
The steep price of enchantment is one of the crucial lessons of "Tale of Tales," albeit not in quite the way its makers intended. Diverting but rarely transporting, unpredictable yet strangely overdetermined, Garrone's film never conjures the sustained, enveloping magic promised by its extravagant design and its agreeably unhinged story sense. You can't always tell what's coming next, but nearly everything that does happen — bizarre transformations, elaborate ruses, startling acts of betrayal — seems to arise from, and confirm, a reflexively cruel and pranksterish worldview.
That sensibility is of course endemic to any number of fairy tales, including the works of the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault, who borrowed and adapted some of their most famous stories from Basile's collection. But the pessimism at the heart of "Tale of Tales" also gives it a connection with Garrone's earlier work — including his best-known picture, the ferociously gritty gangster drama "Gomorrah," which envisioned crime-riddled Naples as a seething hell on earth. He followed that up with the more sentimental "Reality," an amusing if overstretched comic fable about a Neapolitan fisherman's obsessive quest for "Big Brother" fame.
Both films announced Garrone as a gifted if erratic cinematic moralist, for whom the modern world is marked by a great spiritual absence — a place where the trappings of religion, whether superficially present or entirely absent, have been eclipsed by a secular creed of greed, materialism and celebrity. And so while "Tale of Tales" may seem a fantastical retreat from, well, "Reality," its foray into pagan folklore actually suggests a logical progression. Each story here follows a trail of human lusts and desires to a brutally violent end, in the process reaffirming a series of lessons about the corruptions of power and the folly of pursuing youth and beauty for their own sake.
Garrone recognizes that the tropes and themes of fantasy storytelling, far from being child's play, can teach us much about the venality of human nature. And he seems fascinated by the form's potential for both realism and artifice, as evidenced by his reliance on practical effects rather than CGI (the giant flea in particular has a pleasingly rubbery appearance) and also in the somewhat flat, matted look of the movie's Italian locations, many of which were deliberately chosen for their resemblance to studio sets.
Which is not to suggest that "Tale of Tales" — sumptuously outfitted by production designer Dimitri Capuani and filmed in lustrous widescreen images by cinematographer Peter Suschitzky — is without its visual wonders. The most striking images have an eerie, suspended-in-time lyricism: Reilly's king walking across the ocean floor in a clanging metal diving suit, or a scarlet-haired damsel (Stacy Martin) wandering naked in the woods. Garrone, who has a touch of Fellini in his blood, turns the screen into a carnival of flesh: He has a sensualist's eye for the female form but also a vulgarian's appreciation for the unloveliness of mottled skin and sagging limbs.
The director invests his filmmaking with so much bawdy, darkly comic energy that it's all the more perplexing that "Tale of Tales" never quite stirs to life. Garrone, one of four credited screenwriters, braids his three stories together in an arbitrary, pass-the-baton style that continually stalls the film's momentum. The international cast, though marvelously oddball, never quite shakes off the feeling of having been assembled with starry commercial prospects rather than dramatic coherence in mind.
The strongest performances come from Jones, at once maddening and endearing in his cluelessness, and Cave, a gifted newcomer who suggests a winsome cross between Zoe Kazan and a younger Emma Thompson; together they give their characters' father-daughter rapport a poignant sting. The worst acting (though not the least enjoyable) comes from Cassel, panting and heaving as though the mere presence of the camera were a powerful aphrodisiac. He teeters on the brink of self-parody throughout, never more so than when he kisses and suckles a woman's finger through a keyhole. Salma Hayek, eat your heart out.
'Tale of Tales'
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes