A sizable number of foo-foo Cannes critics have creamed over Matteo Garrone‘s Tale of Tales following Wednesday evening’s 7 pm screening. These responses have struck me as overly obliging, to put it gently. Due respect to Garrone (Gomorrah) and 17th Century Italian author Giambattista Basile, whose “Pentamoronem,” a collection of 50 dream fables published posthumously in 1634 and 1636, inspired many classic fairy-tales we’re all familiar with, but for all its compositional delights and atmospheric richness, Tale of Tales is a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing save that Garrone is a highly skilled, grand-vision director.
Yes, I enjoyed the fact that the three tales are adult-angled, which is to say dark, gloopey and completely unrelated to “happily ever after,” and I felt satisfied by their perversity as far as it went, but they don’t lead anywhere or echo anything — they’re just diseased and obsessive and aggressively illogical little sagas about royals who want what they want and then have to pay for their obsessions or blindnesses or over-reachings.
Out of the original 50 they seem to have been chosen by Garrone more for their confounding perversity than anything else. And I’m saying this as a fan of Fellini Satyricon (’69), which at least seemed to be saying something about the libertine culture of the late ’60s whereas Tale of Tales seems to be about nothing more than the fact that Garrone and his team had zilch to say. Except maybe that life is full of pitfalls and trap doors and at the end of the day the odds are that you’ll wind up fucked if you resort to magic to solve your problems.
Tale of Tales is a first-rate, beautifully realized, weirdly perverse fantasy film. But the tales, which concern royals of three neighboring kingdoms dealing with magical powers and unexpected manifestations, are irksome, unsatisfying and disjointed. And they never feed into each other in any meaningful way. You guys over in the next kingdom are having trouble, you say, with magic spells and dark fates and ogres and whatnot? Well, things are just as fucked in our kingdom. You’re fucked, we’re fucked…life is a shit sandwich. But at least Garrone’s movie isn’t for kids!
Things start off with an unhappy, childless king and queen (John C. Reilly, Salma Hayek) who listen to a creepy cloaked wizard about how they might have a child. He tells them that if Hayek eats the heart of a certain sea serpent she’ll become pregnant right away, and so valiant Reilly kills the beast and soon after the heart is sitting on Hayek’s dinner plate. Lo and behold she’s suddenly with child and then gives birth to an albino boy. But a servant who had prepared the heart for eating was affected by steam or smoke emerging from the heart and she herself has become pregnant and given birth to an albino also. Village of the Damned!
The white-haired children are identical for obvious reasons, and yet Hayek nonsensically and ludicrously forbids Albino Son #1 to be in contact with Albino Son #2 (i.e., the servant girl’s). Why? After a while you’re saying to yourself, “This is seriously stupid…why am I watching this again? Oh, right, because it’s so richly composed and because I have to because I’m in Cannes and have no choice.”
I’m not going to go into the other two, but they involve a blithering idiot king (Toby Jones) who politely ignores his daughter’s wish to find a suitable mate, fixating instead on a very special flea that has amazing growing abilities. I don’t want to talk about what happens next. Almost as stupid is the tale of a super-randy king (Vincent Cassel) falling madly in love with the suggestion of a pretty lady who is in fact a gentle witch-like hag. But you can tell right away that the hag and her sister are wearing prosthetic latex makeup and you’re wondering what name-brand actress is under all the makeup. And…I’m sounding overly dismissive. I don’t mean to be. I’m just saying…well, I’m saying it.
Just don’t listen to any easy-lay critics who are too hopped up on this thing. It’s fine as far as the cinematography and makeup and production-design diversions are concerned, but let’s not get carried away. Despite what Cannes jury member Guillermo del Toro is probably thinking right now.