The most telling revelation in Tale of Tales has little to do with ugly sisters, transmogrified monsters, or angry ogres. It’s only once the end titles reveal that the film is dedicated to director Matteo Garrone’s children that the idea behind this lavishly mounted, fairy-tale triptych begins to make sense: a rambling, big budget, Sunday-afternoon adaptation of a 17th-century Italian classic, albeit one with a brace of bared breasts and well-mannered naughtiness thrown in for good measure. One of the first films to premiere in competition, it would also have ticked most of the boxes for an opening film: a gaggle of stars, a certain commercial potential, and the warm glow of largely unwarranted self-satisfaction.
The caprices of royalty are what links together these three otherwise unrelated fables: one king and queen (John C. Reilly and Salma Hayek) deem no measures too bloody to gain the child they crave, just as another randy king (Vincent Cassel) seems equally driven to make the latest wench he beds stand out from the rest, while a plumper, more feckless king (Toby Jones) seems more interested in a flesh-eating flea than his daughter’s marital prospects. Each kingdom comes with the full repository of grubby extras carrying out quotidian tasks in the background, fawning courtiers in elaborate costumes, ornately designed chambers of stone, marble, or tasteful paneling, and great swathes of landscape rendered in deliberately fantastical hues. Yet while the setting does indeed succeed in spinning an otherworldly, if oddly retro cocoon, the tales themselves fail to envelop in the same fashion, both due to Garrone’s tendency to cut at seeming random between the individual narratives and their generally meandering nature.
The sort of brisk forward motion and lucid thematic content one might expect from a fairy tale is oddly lacking here, with each story twisting and turning to such a degree that it often feels like anything can or will happen. This arbitrariness wouldn’t be a problem if Garrone were willing to grant all these plot shifts the unfettered quality they seem to be crying out for, yet at every step, the same over-expository dialogue and exclamatory musical cues bring each potential flight of fancy back down to earth with a thud. There’s always a feeling that the audience shouldn’t be overly challenged, a sense of innate cautiousness that equally extends to the film’s thematic subtext.
While these three magical tales can’t help but throw up some pleasingly odd situations (a king lovingly caressing a groaning overgrown flea, boundless sexual desire that might just be sated by the body of an older woman, two pale-skinned young men borne of a sea monster locked in an embrace), it appears that actual transgression would be a bridge too far. One early scene of Hayek devouring the heart of a monster proves to be a perfect motif for this approach: a primly lit white room, some artfully applied blood around the lips, and a couple of polite mouthfuls, before the next scene erases any outward sign of her unseemly appetite. The same whiff of conservatism also extends to the film’s view of women; one might have thought that heaving this text into the present might permit female desire to end in something other than tribulation.
Perhaps the true problem with Garrone’s film is the unrealistic expectations set up by its title: If you’re going to call your film Tale of Tales, you might want to brush up on your storytelling. As it is, it would seem that all the magic in the realm can’t quite transform these three trifling tales into much more than a glitzy bauble.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 13—24.