TALE OF TALES (Italy | France | UK/TBC/125mins)
Directed by Matteo Garrone. Starring John C. Reilly, Salma Hayek, Toby Jones, Vincent Cassel, Shirley Henderson, Hayley Carmichael, Bebe Cave, Jonah Lees, Christian Lees.
Matteo Garrone returns to Cannes with a triptych of fairytales set in a grotesque and beautiful world. A queen (Salma Hayek) longs for a child, and goes to extreme and dangerous lengths to fulfil her dreams. King of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel) finds his sexual appetite insatiable until he meets a woman who is not quite all she claims, and the King of Highhills’ (Toby Jones) obsession with a performing flea spells disaster for his young daughter.
THE VERDICT: It seems that Matteo Garrone has a fascination with the fantastic and mythical – his previous film REALITY starred an actor let out of prison to film, and focused on a man’s desperate attempts to get on the Italian version of Big Brother – so it makes sense that the director has turned his hand to a 17th century collection of fairy tales by Italian author Giambattista Basile in his first English language film.
Salma Hayek and John C. Reilly play our first set of Royals, those of Longtrellis; Reilly caring and devoted, Hayek single minded and ever more obsessed with her goal to become a mother. Both do well with their roles, with Hayek’s frosty and unscrupulous queen shining through. Vincent Cassel brings humour to the film as the sex addict king; alternating between charming and frightening. Toby Jones plays perhaps the most innocent and naïve of all the royals, making his character child like in some ways, but as single minded as the others, albeit in a different manner. Shirley Henderson and Hayley Carmichael, heavily made up, playing ancient sisters who dream of a more glamorous life. Henderson in particular, treads the thin line between comedy and tragedy with care and ease, at once frustrating the audience, and making us mourn her innocence. Christian and Jonah Lees play Elias and Jonah, the mystical children born to both the Queen and the servant who prepared her magical feast. The two work well together, and seem to enjoy their little time on screen together. Bebe Cave plays the king’s daughter Violet, and brings both strength and vulnerability to the role.
The screenplay, based on Giambattista Basile’s stories and adapted for the screen by Edoardo Albinati, Ugo Chiti, Matteo Garrone and Massimo Gaudioso focuses on the fantastical; there are elements of mystery and magic to each of the stories, as well as grotesque fascination and violence. The dialogue swings from comedic to tragic, mining the dark vein that runs through each of the stories. Although each tale focuses on Royalty – and they all come together in the end – and a theme of greed and obsession leading to ruin runs through each of them, there are times when these beautiful stories don’t seem to exist in the same space as one another. This leaves the film feeling slightly disconnected, and the promise of all three tying together with a moral or a shared conclusion never comes to fruition.
As director, Garrone has created a beautiful and fantastic film, with the three stories that clearly exist in the same world, if not the same space. The film has a feel of The Princess Bride, Neil Gaiman’s stories, and Dave McKean’s artworks about it, and Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography is beautiful, bringing this feeling to the fore of the film, playing with colour, light and striking images. Garrone has coxed strong performances from his actors, with Shirley Henderson standing out, but never manages to make the three exist in an easy union.
In all, TALE OF TALES is a beautiful collection of dark, twisted and often funny stories, individually told in a gripping manner. It is only when trying to assemble the three tales into a single film that Garrone’s vision falls apart.
Review by Brogen Hayes

Cannes Review - Tale of Tales (Il racconto dei racconti)
Review by Brogen Hayes
4.0Dark, twisted & fascinating
  • filmbuff2011

    Italian director Matteo Garrone leaves behind the social-realist fable of the stunning Gomorrah to instead embrace a fable of a very different kind with Tale Of Tales, his first English-language film. It’s an anthology of three interwoven fairytales with a sting in the tale.

    First up, Queen of Longtrellis (Salma Hayek) and King Longtrellis (John C. Reilly) are approached by a mysterious stranger. In order for the Queen to conceive, her husband must first kill a sea serpent and cut out its heart. Cooked by a virgin, the heart is then presented to the Queen to eat. Afterwards, she conceives and gives birth to a son – at the same time as the virgin. The two boys are almost identical twins and the Queen tries to separate them. In the second story, lusty King of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel) becomes besotted with the singing voice of a young maiden. However, Dora isn’t a young maiden at all. Dora (Hayley Carmichael) and her sister Imma (Shirley Henderson) play a spot of catfishing with the king, as they’re really old crones. Finally, King of Highhills (Toby Jones) becomes obsessed with the size of his pet flea, which grows to monstrous proportions. He then tries to marry off his simpering daughter Violet (Bebe Cave), but a most unsuitable suitor comes forward to claim her…

    Tale Of Tales is a delightful surprise, as it eschews the Disney approach to fairytales and harkens back to something darker and more mature. This is not a film for children, though older, odder children might appreciate its sly, knowing sense of humour. Loosely based on a series of Neapolitan folk tales written down by the 17th Century poet Giambattista Basile, it features stock fairytale characters such as a princess who wants to get married, wicked old crones, ogres, unwise kings and mystical creatures. However, Garrone gives it a modern spin by adding Monty Python-style antics and a non-serious approach to its characters. It’s a heady mixture to be sure and is often intoxicating, but it works brilliantly. Part of that is down to the performances, which are pitched just the right side of camp.

    King of Highhills antics’ with his pet flea are riotously funny, with Jones playing the part to perfection. Cassel also has a lot of fun playing a bawdy king who gets his comeuppance with two sisters with a unique take on cosmetic surgery (hint: it involves knives). Less successful is Hayek, who despite giving a good performance, never really gets her story going to the point where it reaches a satisfying conclusion. The baroque, interwoven nature of the story’s structure means that it flits back and forth between the characters, much like the flea in the King of Highhills’ hands. Whereas most anthologies have a framing narrative and clearly delineated story points, Garrone playfully suggests that the framing narrative is the fairytale world itself.

    Gorgeously shot by veteran cinematographer Peter Suschitzky in scenic Italian locations (much like another modern fairytale, Ladyhawke), this film is a feast for the senses. It has some superb creature design too, which thankfully goes with old-school animatronics rather than all-too-easy CGI. Garrone has fashioned a darkly funny, entertaining and imaginative anthology of fairytales which simply demands to be seen on the big screen. It may be a tad overlong, but every minute is a chance to soak in Garrone’s sensuous world, which amiably turns the traditional fairytale upside down and gives it a hearty shake for good measure. ****