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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“The worst thing that we have in today’s movie culture is Rotten Tomatoes. It’s the destruction of our business. I have such respect and admiration for film criticism. When I was growing up film criticism was a real art. And there was intellect that went into that. And you would read Pauline’s Kael’s reviews, or some others, and that doesn’t exist anymore. Now it’s about a number. A compounded number of how many positives vs. negatives. Now it’s about, ‘What’s your Rotten Tomatoes score?’ And that’s sad, because the Rotten Tomatoes score was so low on Batman v Superman I think it put a cloud over a movie that was incredibly successful. People don’t realize what goes into making a movie like that. It’s mind-blowing. It’s just insane, it’s hurting the business, it’s getting people to not see a movie. In Middle America it’s, ‘Oh, it’s a low Rotten Tomatoes score so I’m not going to go see it because it must suck.’ But that number is an aggregate and one that nobody can figure out exactly what it means, and it’s not always correct. I’ve seen some great movies with really abysmal Rotten Tomatoes scores. What’s sad is film criticism has disappeared. It’s really sad.”
~ Brett Ratner Has A Sad

“The loss of a local newspaper critic is a real loss. People who know the local audience and know the local cultural scene are very important resources. You can’t just substitute the stuff that comes in from nowhere through syndication or the wire. I think at the same time, some of the newer outlets have really beefed up and improved their coverage and made room for criticism. The real problem is in the more specialized art forms — fine arts, classical music, dance and jazz, say. There is a real slowing of critical voices, partly because those art forms have smaller audiences. Newspapers and magazines can say that doesn’t get enough traffic, so we don’t have room for that. To me, that’s especially worrisome. This is the opposite of what newspapers are supposed to do, which is not to try to figure out what people are already interested in and recite that back to them, but to hopefully guide them to something that they should be interested in, connecting potential audiences with more interesting work.

“Then again, not everyone needs a critic. People have been going to movies for more than 100 years now, and probably the vast majority of those people have not read movie reviews or cared what critics thought. But there has always been an important subset that wants to know more, that wants to think about what they’ve seen and what they’re going to see, and wants someone to think along with. I think critics are important, not just as dispensers of consumer advice — though that’s certainly part of it, too — but as trusted voices and companions for people to argue with in your head when you’re going to movies or afterwards.”
~ A. O. Scott