Review: The modernity of 'Tale of Tales' almost trumps its visual splendor
CANNES — Once upon a time there were fairy tales that were strange and horrific. Fairy tales that were meant to entertain and to enlighten. Fairy tales that weren't just meant for young children. Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone takes you back to that time with "Tale of Tales," his loose adaptation of Giambattista Basile's "The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones," which screened Wednesday night at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. The result is a slightly bumpy two hours of storytelling, but it's peppered with wonder and unexpected humor.
Best known for his critically acclaimed thriller "Gomorrah," Garrone has fashioned a lose narrative around three nearby kingdoms in Basile's tales. The main story, if there is one, centers on a distraught, barren Queen (Salma Hayek) who's husband, the King of Longtrellis (John C. Reilly), makes a deal with a mysterious charlatan (Franco Pistoni) in order to get her pregnant. The King ends up sacrificing himself in order to kill a sea creature, whose heart must be consumed by the Queen if she is to give birth to a child. Unbeknownst to the Queen, a Virgin needed to cast the spell (Laura Pizzirani) also becomes pregnant from the magic heart, and both quickly deliver boys whose albino-esque appearance owes a little something to the monster that helped conceive them. The bond between Jonah and Elias (real-life twins Christian and Jonah Lees) breeds an unhealthy jealousy in the Queen, a woman who has already gone to extremes to get what she wants.
The second tale is based on "The Flea" and begins with the King of Highills (Toby Jones) becoming so charmed with one member of that particular insect family that he takes it as a pet. The result is monstrous in more ways than one. His strange folly becomes part of a contest he holds to find a suitor for his beautiful and beloved daughter, Princess Violet (an impressive Bebe Cave). When a gigantic ogre (Guillaume Delaunay) wins the challenge, the King is forced to sentence Violet to a life of unimaginable hell (well, at least for a princess).
Lastly, there's the King of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel), the greatest womanizer in all the land. One night, he hears a common woman with an enchanting voice singing in the streets beneath his castle. That songstress is Dora (a fantastic Hayley Carmichael), who runs in fear from the enamored King. Obsessed, the King follows her to her destitute home, insisting she come out so he can gaze upon the face that surely must match the beautiful sounds coming from her lips. Of course, Dora is anything but gorgeous and both she and her similarly unattractive sister Imma (Shirley Henderson) fret over how to satisfy their King's unrealistic expectations.
What is most striking about Garrone's work isn't necessarily the stunning images he brings to life on the screen (although the visage of Hayek chomping on a bloody heart in a dining hall of stark white design is already legendary), but rather the heartbreaking parallels to modern day obsessions he finds within Basile's stories: the plastic surgery-like extremes Dora and Imma are willing to endure to become beautiful for their King, the fact that Princess Violet has to suffer through an unnecessary ordeal to claim an independence she should have had in the first place, a Queen who refuses to let her noble son associate with a commoner. The timelessness of these particular themes, and others, will haunt viewers just as much as the incredible compositions Garrone and his team have created.
Where Garrone stumbles is in letting these tales unfurl at too leisurely a pace. It's common to complain about the length of movies, particularly at film festivals, but he tests the patience of his audience during the film's first act. "Tale of Tales" clocks in at 2 hours and 5 minutes long, but some of Garrone's editing choices make it feel substantially longer than it needs to (and that's likely one reason the movie is without U.S. distribution at the time of this review).
Tremendous praise needs to be given to Garrone's collaborators for bringing his unique vision to life, however. Although not among his most memorable works, Alexandre Desplat's score gives the film a much-needed energy when it needs it. Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky's wonderful eye is evident in many of the film's most striking scenes and is another impressive entry on his incredible resume. Production designer Dimitri Capuani superbly incorporates real Italian locations into a unique but intentionally familiar fantasy world. And lastly, it goes without saying Massimo Cantini Parrini's first high-profile film as a lead costume designer is a prime candidate for awards recognition.
"Tale of Tales" is now playing in Italy.