Tale of Tales (2016)
dir. Matteo Garrone
written by: Edoardo Albinati, Ugo Chiti, Matteo Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso
starring: Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones, John C. Reilly, Bebe Cave, Shirley Henderson
3.25 out of 4 stars
With the release of the Beauty and the Beast teaser trailer and the impending visual assault of Alice in Wonderland Through the Looking Glass, fairy tale adaptations are again all the buzz. Timely placement on Cannes debut Tale of Tales is a welcome respite from the mass market Disneyfication of these originally dark stories, stripping the terror from these moral questions. Based on Pentamerone or Lo cunto de li cunti (Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones) by Neapolitan poet Giambattista Basile, three interconnected stories of royalty and the terrible secrets in their lives find the gruesome mingling with the glamorous, the secretive encountering the nobel.
Surrounding the foibles of three royals, we are delivered a realistic yet magical glimpse into some of the earliest recorded tales. Director Matteo Garrone (Gomorrah), along with his fellow writers, have not quite mastered English dialogue. Nothing spoken within the gorgeous scenery is of particular note, but the positions they have placed their characters present a stark reality within a fantasy world. Little feels forced visually, but the screenplay is rather bland in delivery. All of the charm lies in the visuals and surprisingly touching performances.
Exceptional performances are found within this genre that rarely impresses. Salma Hayek produces her best film role since her Oscar nominated Frida. As a queen desperately seeking a child, she gently blends single-minded desire to obsessive devotion with ample grace. Whether devouring a heart with attentive gusto or giddily chasing her son through a maze, Hayek is a maniacal queen with a sympathetic tone. Toby Jones, ever versatile, provides a related king obsessed with his rapidly growing pet flea. Distraught or doting, Jones is a gentle father and kindly ruler. King #2 Vincent Cassel is the playboy sexual fiend counteracting his neighboring kingdom’s ruler. Pushy and skeezy, he provides a sexy but womanizing king archetype, less impressive but certainly fun. Highlights outside of their royal highnesses include Bebe Cave, as Jones’s daughter, and Shirley Henderson, as the ugly sister who desires the transformation encountered by her sister. Cave tackles a physically challenging performance that culminates in her rising above her princess beginnings. Henderson, squeaks and squeals through her role, not unlike her Moaning Myrtle in the Harry Potter movies, but the mindly fascination with becoming a desirable woman, or whatever her sister wants to be, she encapsulates the blind obsession with beauty so often present in fairy tales.
Unsurprisingly, the visuals are the highlight of this movie. Production designer Dimitri Capuani, part of the art department on Gangs of New York and Hugo, excels at blending period appropriate bleak walls and floors, monopolizes on natural greenery, and provides dashes of gorgeous rugs and thrones to decorate his beige Mediterranean castles. Costume designer Massimo Cantini Parrini learns from heavily stylized experience in films such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Brothers Grimm to create breathtakingly beautiful costumes. Combined with grotesque and beautiful makeup and hair, he created a swath of period costumes in marvelous colors. Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, who shot Empire Strikes Back and Rocky Horror, continues masterfully appropriate fantasy filmmaking. Allowing the camera to creep behind a corner a moment too long, such as in the maze, or framing a queen walking away with the heart of a sea monster, he never shies away the blood, and the lighting he manipulates adds to the appeal.
Much like last year’s Youth, this Italian director displays some adjustment issues in translating his art for English-language film production. The visual landscape he paints is one with lasting appeal. His vision did not evolve, but the attraction for his material was more vocal than anticipated. My theater was vibrant before the picture and chatty following; opposition was present but fascinated opposition it was. Fairy tales were never meant to coddle; neither was this film.