Fairy tales used to be cautionary stories for children, darkly symbolic to spark a child’s imagination so they could sift important moral lessons from the myths. The lessons were simple but essential. Often that lesson boiled down to this: don’t grow up to be a terrible person or terrible things will happen to you. Modern day animated films dance around the same notion but much of the terror has been toned down. In today’s fables, heroes are rarely subjected to serious tragedy, humiliation and schadenfreude, because most parents choose to withhold those harsh realities from kids when they’re young. Our American brand of happiness is less Grimm and more happily ever after. The boy has to get the girl. The bad guys have to get caught. Life has to be idealized so maximum happiness is achieved. But the deepest, most disturbing storytelling never lets us off so easily.
Matteo Garrone is known for telling real world morality tales, as he did with Gommorah, a naked depiction of who and what the modern mafia have become. Exposing the way a predatory brotherhood of dangerous men recruit neighborhood youth. It’s surprising that his latest film, which screened tonight at the Cannes Film Festival, has him delving into sheer fantasy. That Garrone dedicates the film to his own two children is even more surprising; just try to find any American parents brave enough to show this movie to their kids. Tale of Tales is easily a hard R by American standards and yet it depicts, ridicules, and celebrates the good, the bad and the ugly of human nature in ways the Brothers Grimm would find familiar.
Adapted by Garrone and three other screenwriters, the film is loosed based on The Tale of Tales or Entertainment for Little Ones, written by Giambattista Basile at the dawn of the 17th century soon after the devastating Renaissance Wars had ended. Garrone’s adaptation takes a bit of time to hit its rhythm, switching back and forth between stories in a kingdom of forest witches, black magic, giant fleas, ogres, and kings and queens. We aren’t eased into the absurd here — we’re plunged right in and expected to keep up.
That the film is in English, not Garrone’s native language, is all the more surprising as the humor here is so subtle many in attendance seemed to wonder if they should laugh at certain scenes that were clearly meant to be funny. Because the tone shifts from funny to sad to tragic to violent — it won’t be an easy film to pin down, particularly for US distributors who can’t aim the film at kids and might have trouble defining its ideal niche for adult ticket buyers.
Salma Hayek plays a controlling queen who is so eager to become a mother she must follow the bizarre ritual of finding a virgin to eat the heart of a lizard before her baby can magically appear. Vince Cassel plays a debaucherous king who can have any woman in the kingdom yet still seeks out the only one he’s never seen. Hayek and Cassel are joined by Toby Jones, John C. Reilly and the actress who mostly steals the movie, Bebe Cave, as the princess waiting for Prince Charming. Like all the characters in the film she will either be brought down by her desires or else triumph unexpectedly.
We’ve become conditioned to a kind of standard paradigm for storytelling, especially where children’s movies are concerned, but this film has no interest in following such a paradigm. It freely goes where it wants to, resulting in a kind of amalgam of Ken Russell and old school Disney. The moral of these stories may be unsatisfying to some because they deliberately refuse to give the characters what they want — instead, they get what they need.
Tales of Tales is a reminder that a captivating story can hold us in thrall much longer than any kind of visual effect, no matter how masterful. The themes are broad and archetypical, with women’s fear of aging, men’s fear of them aging, falling in love versus arranged marriages of royals, a mother’s possessiveness of her son. All the while the film displays lavish dreamscapes as breathtaking in their scope as they are alive with phantasmagorical imagery. Compared to the kind of expert tech displayed in American film, the effects, costumes and cinematography of Tale of Tales aren’t on the level of a Lord of the Rings or a live-action Disney film. This doesn’t detract from the movie, though some may be expecting visuals on that order.
Mostly Garrone seems to be having a lot of fun with this exploration, this building of fantasies and nightmares. He indulges in displays of nude female bodies, depicts graphic sex scenes, and never shies away from the violence and hardcore brutality that made him famous. Though the film take place in a fairy tale world, it feels more truthful about the human experience than any film aimed at children released in America in the past thirty years, with the possible exception of Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. That’s probably because it isn’t a film whose sole aim is children.
Fairy tales did not originate as the soothing comfort blankets to kids that they’ve become today. Even the early Disney movies were full of darkness, so much so that many adults can remember being traumatized by them. The therapy generation gave rise to helicopter parents as panic set in about the best way to guide our kids — what if we screw them up? Little by little, movies began to cater to the idealized lives we’ve invented for children, devoid of warnings where bad guys roll up in cars and try to lure you with a puppy, where things you eat could kill you in your sleep. We’re so full of fear and paranoia at all times about protecting our children that we’ve opted for this newly minted fairy tale reality where every problem is solved in the end and the loser almost always wins the day.
Tale of Tales turns those expectations inside out and trips the light fantastic with astonishing poise. It’s breathtaking to witness Garrone take such an unforeseen leap. Ideally, the best directors don’t get trapped by the type of films that made them famous, but rather have the stuff to roll the dice and try something new. It helps if you’re making movies anywhere but in the USA, where there is no way this film would have ever gotten the green light as is.
With the same trust in its audience that made the first fairy tales so compelling 400 years ago, The Tale of Tales is a film for those who still believe in the power of the viewers imagination, who haven’t surrendered their curiosity to safe rides on narrow tracks that work out the puzzles for you. It is a film about opening hidden doors and climbing upside down staircases, about the dread and the exhilaration of losing control whenever we try to manage fate. Most of all it is a reminder that the fairy tale, above all other things, still retains its gutsy power to shock, dazzle, teach and entertain.