In Matteo Garrone’s previous two films—his 2008 breakthrough Gomarrah and its follow-up, Reality—the Italian director occasionally strained to say something meaningful about, respectively, mob crime culture and society’s fascination with celebrity. But with his latest offering, he ends up being far more profound without breaking much of a sweat. Instead of working in drama or satire, Garrone shifts gears and plunges into 17th-century fairytales for Tale of Tales. As a result, he’s produced a work that’s deeply odd but also oddly stirring. The fantastical seems to have tapped into something more primal and inspired with Garrone, resulting in a film that may be uneven but is always nimbly unpredictable.
Inspired by a collection of fairytales by Italian author Giambattista Basile, who died in the 1630s, Tale of Tales consists of three stories, each involving a separate kingdom. There’s no immediate connection between the tales, and Garrone weaves in and out of the stories, often ending on a cliffhanger or otherwise suspenseful moment before leaping to a different story.
But unlike the moralistic folktales of our childhood with their pat lessons, these yarns start in one place and travel across terrain you could never anticipate. In one, a barren king (John C. Reilly) and queen (Salma Hayek) learn that to have a child they must slay a dangerous sea creature and steal its heart. In the second, an easily distracted king (Toby Jones) ignores his daughter’s (Bebe Cave) wish to find a husband because he’s obsessed with a flea that seems to have taken to him the way a loyal dog takes to his master. And in the final tale, a lustful king (Vincent Cassel) becomes smitten with one of his subject’s singing voices, having no idea that the woman and her sister (Hayley Carmichael, Shirley Henderson) are actually wretched-looking hags.
Each story is set up to seem fairly obvious, but Garrone isn’t out to make any obvious points or take us down conventional narrative paths. Instead, Garrone and his three co-writers keep knocking us back on our heels, throwing out surprising twists and also unleashing some extraordinary images. Working with longtime David Cronenberg cinematographer Peter Suschitzky and production designer Dimitri Capuani, the director has fashioned a legitimately fantastical universe in which a terrifying monster fish or an unsettling ogre can live side-by-side with the story’s human characters. While the special effects can sometimes be a little creaky, Tale of Tales has a handmade charm that only makes this fairytale world more magical. Rather than slathering the film with CGI, the creative team has striven for something a little more tactile, which lends an old-fashioned feel that’s altogether refreshing.
It’s difficult to delve into some of Tale of Tales’ strengths without spoiling what happens. But just as in the best pulp fiction, these stories are willing to go down unexpected avenues just for the sheer mischief of trying. To use the first story, called “The Queen,” as an example, the quest for an heir ends up producing two identical children (played by twins Christian and Jonah Lees) to two mothers, causing unimagined consequences that touch on issues of class and destiny. As for “The Flea,” Garrone travels from one man’s bizarre obsession to universal questions of feminism, in between subtly tweaking the typical damsel-in-distress narrative in fairytales. And in the mirthful “The Two Old Ladies,” sisterly bonds and traditional definitions of beauty are examined and occasionally mocked.
In each of these stories, there’s a fair share of blood. But the somewhat gruesome storytelling is at the service of an almost innocent craving for our collective youthful fear and delight about ghost stories and fractured fairytales that raise the hair on the back of our neck. Tale of Tales plays with ideas of witches, monsters, castles, heroic kings, even necromancers. But Garrone’s chief objective is the pure pleasure of escapist storytelling—except, oddly enough, these tales resonate in dark, unanticipated ways. Goosed along by Oscar-winner Alexandre Desplat’s bold, otherworldly score, Tale of Tales is an elaborate, sometimes beautiful bedtime story that’s most determinedly aimed at adults.
For a movie with a very distinctive tone and sense of place, Tale of Tales requires a cast that’s all on the same page. Thankfully, Garrone gets pretty strong performances across the board. Cassel may be a bit too broad as the womanizing king, but Hayek is wonderfully menacing as a queen who will have a child or else. Also quite funny is Jones, whose character’s preoccupation with a flea plays out in increasingly darker sequences. But the actresses mostly likely to be overlooked in the ensemble are Hayley Carmichael and Shirley Henderson as the ugly women wooed by Cassel’s king. At first, this story seems the lamest and most one-note, but sure enough, Garrone finds an intriguing new chapter in these women’s adventure, upending their bond in such a way that it cuts right to the heart of the deep craving for belonging that’s integral to so many fairytales.
Director: Matteo Garrone
Writers: Edoardo Albinati, Ugo Chiti, Matteo Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso (screenplay); Giambattista Basile (book)
Starring: Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones, John C. Reilly, Shirley Henderson, Hayley Carmichael, Bebe Cave, Stacy Martin, Christian Lees, Jonah Lees, Guillaume Delaunay
Release Date: Screening in Competition at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.