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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“When Bay keeps these absurd plot-gears spinning, he’s displaying his skill as a slick, professional entertainer. But then there are the images of motion—I hesitate to say, of things in motion, because it’s not clear how many things there are in the movie, instead of mere digital simulations of things. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that there’s a car chase through London, seen from the level of tires, that could have gone on for an hour, um, tirelessly. What matters is that the defenestrated Cade saves himself by leaping from drone to drone in midair like a frog skipping among lotus pads; that he and Vivian slide along the colossal, polished expanses of sharply tilting age-old fields of metal like luge Olympians. What matters is that, when this heroic duo find themselves thrust out into the void of inner space from a collapsing planet, it has a terrifyingly vast emptiness that Bay doesn’t dare hold for more than an instant lest he become the nightmare-master. What matters is that the enormous thing hurtling toward Earth is composed in a fanatical detail that would repay slow-motion viewing with near-geological patience. Bay has an authentic sense of the gigantic; beside the playful enormity of his Transformerized universe, the ostensibly heroic dimensions of Ridley Scott’s and Christopher Nolan’s massive visions seem like petulant vanities.”
~ Michael Bay Gives Richard Brody A Tingle

How do you see film evolving in this age of Netflix?

I thought the swing would be quicker and more violent. There have been two landmark moments in the history of French film. First in 1946, with the creation of the CNC under the aegis of Malraux. He saved French cinema by establishing the advance on receipts and support fund mechanisms. We’re all children of this political invention. Americans think that the State gives money to French films, but they’re wrong. Through this system, films fund themselves!

The other great turning point came by the hand of Jack Lang in the 1980s, after the creation of Canal+. While television was getting ready to become the nemesis of film, he created the decoder, and a specific broadcasting space between film and television, using new investments for film. That once again saved French film.

These political decisions are important. We’re once again facing big change. If our political masters don’t take control of the situation and new stakeholders like Netflix, Google and Amazon, we’re headed for disaster. We need to create obligations for Internet service providers. They can’t always be against film. They used to allow piracy, but now that they’ve become producers themselves, they’re starting to see things in a different light. This is a moment of transition, a strong political act needs to be put forward. And it can’t just be at national level, it has to happen at European level.

Filmmaker Cédric Klapisch