In the photo above, John C. Reilly and Salam Hayek play the king and queen of a small kingdom in a fairy tale land far far away. There are rock canyons a lot like the world of Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings,” and mossy deep forests for the likes of hunter kings (Vincent Cassel is one here) and crazy oversized beasts (of the deep, of the canyons, of the forest, and another king’s pet flea). How many kings rule one kingdom? This question is never answered. This fantasy fable is a terrible misfire for Italian director Matteo Garrone, who is heading more in the direction of his last film “Reality” than his more naturalistic Cannes hit “Gomorrah.” The accents, predictably, are all over the place.
And so are the incredulities. How does a tightrope walker cross a gorge? How does a man in a deep-sea diving suit breathe underwater? Magic? That can only take you so far. And inept hair and makeup and VFX don’t help.
In this era of fairy-tale prequels, sequels and spinoffs, how often do audiences encounter stories of wicked queens, licentious kings and captive princesses in which they don’t already know what happens next? That’s the thrill of Matteo Garrone’s “Tale of Tales,” a lavishly realized and long overdue adaptation of three stories from 17th-century Neapolitan scribe Giambattista Basile’s “Pentamerone,” which predates and even inspired many of the classics in heavy rotation today, from Rapunzel to Cinderella. Whereas Walt Disney mostly overlooked Basile, the brothers Grimm were big fans, and the sheer volume of bloodshed, off-color coupling and dark comedy clearly puts Garrone’s film in the category of adult-skewing fairy tales (but not that sordid subgenre of soft-core exploitation movies that issued from Italy in the ’70s), which seems likely to result in the director’s largest international showing yet, aided by its cast of familiar faces and English-language script.
Monty Python by way of Tim Burton and “The Princess Bride,” Italian director Matteo Garrone’s first English language feature “Tale of Tales” is a nutty compendium of outrageous fairy tales unfolding within the constraints of a single unseemly kingdom. Although wobbly in parts like so many cinematic anthologies, Garrone’s alternately silly and entrancing adaptation of Giambattista Basile’s Neapolitan stories provides a welcome gothic antidote to more stately treatments of similar material.
Matteo Garrone’s “Tale of Tales” is fabulous in every sense: a freaky portmanteau film based on the folk myths collected and published by the 16th-century Neapolitan poet and scholar Giambattista Basile – Garrone worked on the adaptation with Edoardo Albinati, Ugo Chiti and Massimo Gaudioso. It is gloriously mad, rigorously imagined, visually wonderful: erotic, hilarious and internally consistent. The sort of film, in fact, which is the whole point of Cannes. It immerses you in a complete created world… It is masterpiece of black-comic bad taste and a positive carnival of transgression. The secret is the deadpan seriousness with which everything is treated.
Throughout all the stories, there are fewer overriding themes than there are recurring motifs, and flashes of a dark Grimm Brothers sensibility, as if Garrone had found all the offcuts that Disney and Hans Christian Anderson had excised from their children’s stories, all the severed toes and talking disembodied heads and people tearing themselves in half in rage (can you tell I was scarred by the discovery of my mother’s Grimm’s Fairy Tales at a young age?) and spliced them all together into one film. It makes for compelling individual scenes of beautiful dreadfulness (the cinematic pantheon of “Carrie”-esque women in evening wear, drenched and matted with blood needs to make room for two more), but a whole that never truly comes together, especially as it makes a virtue of its impenetrable morality (another thing that sets it far apart from the 20th century tradition of the cinematic fairytale).
As a technical showcase, it’s never not opulent. Peter Suschitzky beautifully captures Dimitri Capuani’s rococo furnishings, on which he no doubt spent every dime he was offered; and Alexandre Desplat contributes a sweeping, very Desplatian score that notches up the grandeur further still. Had more resources gone toward the script department (which consists of no less than four individuals), perhaps the other failings wouldn’t have been so egregious, and this really could have lived up to its aggrandizing title.
The prime joy of this movie is its episodic dedication to surprise, where it develops its own inimitable internal logic within the first few scenes, yet keeps on raising the wacky bar as the runtime canters on. And it is surprise, not just random images and digressions thrown in the pot to raise a cheap titter. You can tell this by the immaculate detail of its production design, the careful framing and choreography of its shots (exacting without feeling showy or overly studied) and its overall tone of prestige literary baroque. It builds a world which sits at a modest but calculated remove from historical and temporal reality, and is all the more bold and beautiful for it.