Cannes: Tale of Tales review

The latest film from Italian director Matteo Garrone, and his first in the English language, is based upon the seventeenth century fairytales of Giambattista Basile, who pre-dated and heavily influenced the Brothers Grimm.

While the movie may be in English, Garrone has not limited himself to actors from one particular country or of a single accent, with Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones, John C. Reilly and Shirley Henderson all appearing. Many are playing related characters with totally unrelated accents. The success of this choice rests on whether or not the audience find themselves absorbed enough to forget about it, and so it becomes a kind of benchmark test for the picture’s success.

Unfortunately, Tale of Tales so often stumbles, with its uneven tone and a muddled approach to storytelling, that it becomes rather difficult to remain engaged throughout.

The source material, which was posthumously published in 1634 under the title Pentamerone, is richly filled with wonderfully fantastical scenarios and colourful characters. Garrone, working with three other screenwriters, has focused on three of Basile’s fairytales: a queen (Hayek) desperate to have a child, and willing to do anything for him once she succeeds in giving birth; a king who grows a flea to the size of a large boar and marries his daughter off to an ogre; and a lothario king (Cassel) who is seduced by the singing of an ‘ugly’ woman who he decides he must have.

This is very much a familiar fairytale landscape, filled with ogres, sea creatures and a slight overdose of magic. Whilst the baroque grandeur of Tale of Tales is often entertaining, and there are moments of high drama and amusing comedy, it does too often feel like an empty display of panache. Garrone clearly wants to put on a show, but doesn’t have a great deal to back it up with.

Tales does very occasionally try to mine interesting themes from Basile’s stories. A few moments in the story of Cassel’s king, for instance, include gruesome looks at body image attitudes and plastic surgery. But these moments never really coalesce, and feel like fleeting, sideway glances towards relevance and substance.

These ‘body image’ scenes also leave a lot to be desired from the make-up, with sisters Imma (Henderson) and Dora (Hayley Carmichael) always looking just like themselves, just covered in glue-on latex. And this is not helped by the lighting, which highlights rather than masks problems in the make-up, as it often does with the film’s production design.

Admittedly, the design – ill-served as it might be by the cinematography – is often remarkable and imaginative. It seems as though Garrone is interested in the artifice of telling a fairytale on film, and a few of his scenes seem to be intended to look like they were filmed on sets and not real locations. The fruitful conclusion of this idea never comes to be, but the lighting still manages to distract and detract a great deal from the cast’s committed and often arresting performances.

If Garrone has an ace in the hole, it’s composer Alexandre Desplat and there are a number of scenes in which the audience will be carried along effectively by his dramatic, comedic and stirring musical cues.

It’s not as if Tale of Tales is without merits, and it will certainly hold your attention while delivering a good number of highly enjoyable moments – mostly involving Toby Jones – but it’s also overreaching, and decidedly patchy.

A grand folly, then, albeit a somewhat entertaining one.