By Preston Wilder
There’s a bit towards the end of Tale of Tales, Matteo Garrone’s lavish mediaeval fantasy, that spells out a possible m.o. behind this portmanteau movie. A queen (Salma Hayek) asks a cadaverous old wizard to grant her a wish, and the wizard replies that her wish can only be granted if an opposite action also takes place, to preserve equilibrium: “Every desire corresponds to another”. There’s a great film to be made from this formula, a ‘tale of tales’ where what happens in one tale is subtly counterbalanced by what happens in another. Unfortunately, this is not that film.
Garrone has been here before, in Gomorrah (2008) where the Mafia scourge was exposed in five unrelated (yet related) stories: two teenage punks, a corrupt official, an ageing money-runner – all were pieces in a larger mosaic, adding to the cumulative power. Tale of Tales is made up of three stories, all based on 17th-century Neapolitan fables. In one, the aforementioned barren queen uses magic to give birth to a strange albino boy, who comes with a twin brother born to the queen’s servant. In another, a king (Vincent Cassel) is bewitched by the voice of a maiden, not realising that she’s actually an old woman. And, in the third, another king (Toby Jones) neglects his daughter (Bebe Cave) and lavishes attention on a pet flea (!), which grows to the size of a sheep.
On this evidence, Garrone’s greatest talent is for thrift. The film cost about €12 million – a hefty sum for what’s basically an art film, but low-budget by Hollywood standards – and looks like it cost much more. The locations are magnificent (according to an interview in Variety, location manager Gennaro Aquino criss-crossed Italy for seven months to find the right settings), the costumes grand, the special effects impressive, the images often breathtaking. A sleeping girl sprawled in a grassy meadow, the grass-green setting off her crimson robe and fiery orange hair. An underwater shot of a man in an old-fashioned diving suit contemplating a huge, white, reptilian sea monster. A stone bridge reflected in a stream, an ogre’s cave strewn with bones, a woman dwarfed by the walls of a castle.
And of course there’s magic – indeed that’s the best part, that the magic emerges so naturally (the film is the opposite of something like Lord of the Rings, which trumpets its magic with portentous music and dialogue). Hunt down a sea monster, cut out its heart then cook and eat it, commands the wizard – so the king (John C. Reilly) puts on his diving suit and there, straight away, is a sea monster, like the sea is full of them. “Come to this spring every day,” says one albino boy to his brother, plunging his knife into the roots of a tree and magically making water gush out, “and you’ll see the flow of my life”. If the water is clear, it means I’m fine; if the water is muddy I’m in trouble. The other boy nods, unsurprised.
The elements are there for a classic fantasy; yet Tale of Tales is disappointing. “I changed my skin,” says the old woman – magically turned into a young girl – in the Cassel story, and a skin (the skin of a flea) also plays a pivotal role in the Jones story, but so what? There are brothers in one tale and sisters in another, but what does it matter? One searches in vain for some linkage (maybe what the wizard said about equilibrium) but it’s not there, or at least I couldn’t find it.
That wouldn’t matter if each story worked dramatically – but in fact they’re unfocused, and invariably end with a whimper. It’s crucial in fables that characters have clear moral contours, but the ones here are fuzzy. Is the king wrong to court the maiden? Is she wrong to try and deceive him? Is the queen played by Hayek sympathetic, or a bit pathetic? Garrone gives no indication, which is fair enough (we don’t need things spelled out, necessarily), but then over-compensates by veering into horror territory. Two of the three tales end unpleasantly (the third just peters out), with Grand Guignol flourishes that seem excessive when the rest of the film is so flat.
It’s a strange week at the multiplex, without a single Hollywood title – just two Greek-language films and this ornate Euro-fantasy, harking back to the likes of Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life. Tale of Tales is a step in the right direction for European cinema. It’s rare (and shouldn’t be so rare) for a film to screen in Competition at Cannes and also be commercial enough to screen in local cinemas – but the film itself is unsatisfying, and will probably send casual punters screaming back to the latest Marvel franchise. That wizard was right: it lacks balance.
DIRECTED BY Matteo Garrone
STARRING Salma Hayek, Toby Jones, Vincent Cassel
Italy/France/UK 2015 125 mins