By Jake Howell jake.howell@utoronto.ca

Cannes Review: The Tale of Tales

If watching Salma Hayek gorge on the giant heart of a sea monster—wrenching shreds of flesh from its ventricles and stuffing them down her gullet—sounds like your kind of thing, Matteo Garrone’s The Tale of Tales serves moments like this up on a Renaissance-style platter.

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Based “loosely” on 17th-century short stories by Giambattista Basile, Garrone appropriately follows up his 2013 Cannes Grand Prix winner Reality with, well, a fantasy: unlike all other Competition films this year, The Tale of Tales comes from the fairy realm, and it’s a collection of narratives that are bizarre, moralistic, and often visceral. The scene above, for example, is a queen’s attempt to become magically pregnant, an immaculate conception that becomes the catalyst for one of the film’s competing sub-stories.

Like every fairy tale, there’s a message to take home once you close the tome’s dusty covers. Floating in this film’s several neighboring kingdoms are stories of ugly people, where the ugly ranges from truly hideous to perhaps rotten (in terms of individuals at their core). An ogre wins a princess’s hand in marriage; a king (Vincent Cassel) falls in love, sight unseen, with one of two repulsive hags; a royal prince has an identical half-brother who lives in rags. You’ve no doubt seen adaptations of these staple fables before; perhaps delivered with a script that doesn’t sometimes dip into hackneyed.

Forget the writing issues—these are fairy tales, not exactly demanding high literature—because the film is more interesting when consumed outside of that. Visually, Garrone continues his streak of crafting films that have a certain ethereal look to them, or at least steeped in the surreal. His color palettes command your eye with impressive contrasts, rich reds, and deep blues, whether it is a period piece (Tale of Tales) or inside a fish market (Reality). But here, with the brilliant assist of David Cronenberg’s go-to cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, Garrone somehow manages to stage a few tableaus that look straight from the work of Caravaggio. This isn’t hyperbole. One moment in particular reminded me most of this: we glide across the aftermath of a night of bacchanalia, a fountain besot with sumptuous vice and wine-drunk nubiles, and the scene is from the halls of the Baroque masters. Accompanied by a catchy, lilting score by Alexandre Desplat, yeah: some of this works really well.

The film is worth a sit for that.

It’s this kind of humanist aesthetic—intoxicating costume design and dramatic lighting that highlights pale skin, while staying visually expressive—that really kept me through this exercise in lavishness, because the narratives range from a little goofy (there are some gross-out sight gags) to by-the-numbers fairy tale beat points. There’s also certainly no reason to think twice on the film’s primary moral, because it isn’t anything more meaningful than essentials like The Ugly Duckling or The Prince and the Pauper. Sadly, some lackluster green screen work also took me out of it, which is a shame: many of the film’s weirder scenes involve practical effects and props, and I was disappointed to see a few seams in the digital necessities.

By the end of the two-hour running time, you’re left with a movie that takes it time to really show you some heady stuff, yet ironically I still find Garrone’s earlier work subtly more absurdist, or at least more engaging as a cinematic intersection between the real and unreal. The Tale of Tales will be a memorable Competition film this year because of images like the above—and hey, there’s one scene that totally reminds of The Princess Bride and the Cliffs of Insanity—but beyond that, it’s take-it-or-leave-it when it comes to the film’s individual stories. Woven together, with a basic through-line, it’s simply not living up to its title.

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“A shot is a story. A shot on its own should be a piece of a story. Which is why I talk a lot about watching films, even the films we’re working on, with the sound off. Just to analyze how the film works, because a film should work for an audience without any sound. The biggest problem I see is that someone may have a superficial understanding of what a shot is propositionally, but they don’t have an understanding of how all of these shots are part of a family that needs to connect, and so you’ll get something that’s like a sentence arranged poorly with six nouns in a row. That surprises me, because I think that’s something that can be learned. Some things can’t be, but that can. It’s a grammar. In a classroom I could walk somebody through the difference between a sequence in which the filmmaker has a deep understanding of how images connect, and someone who doesn’t. It’s not really an intellectual process. Some people are just born with it and are just sort of savants at that deep mathematical understanding of shot construction.  I’m better than I used to be, but there are some people I’m just never going to catch. Spielberg. His staging ability. I’m never going to catch him. But when you’re trying to figure out how to get better—I’m not competitive in the sense of looking around at other filmmakers and comparing myself to them. What I do have to think about in trying to navigate myself through a career is: what can I get better at, and what do I have that I can enhance that somebody else doesn’t have?”
~ Steven Soderbergh

“It’s not going to be huge. He and I had been corresponding for a while. When I finally met him, he said, ‘We should collaborate.’ When John Ashbery says that to you, you don’t say when, you just say yes. It has not been easy to conjure this out of nothing. Sean Price Williams and I spent time with him, and it will appear on FilmStruck before the year is out…. I have figured out how to streamline things. I still have dreams of making movies with bigger budgets, and they might be considered to have more of a voice in pop culture. I don’t want to let go of that. I also realize that you grow up a lot of your life with wishful thinking and waiting. I have figured out ways to avoid doing that. I am working on a bigger movie about Nikola Tesla, set in the past, so it is not an easy film to make. I am also working on an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s ‘White Noise.’ That seems more likely to catch fire.”
Michael Almereyda Steps It Up