Italian director Matteo Garrone, best known for Gomorrah, describes his first English-language film as “a very ambitious project with a group of extraordinary actors.” Indeed, the all-star international cast of Tale of Tales includes Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel, John C. Reilly and Toby Jones. Presented at the Cannes Film Festival, his Medieval imagery is as complex as the characters, recounted in a habitual fairy tale narrative yet remaining loyal to his dense style.
It is a beautifully grotesque film, a visually rich fable with three female-dominated tableaux, all intertwined in the common thread of love and death.
In the first segment, a queen (Salma Hayek) desperately wants a child. A necromancer tells the couple that the queen must eat the heart of an aquatic creature cooked by a maiden; if she eats it all, it will impregnate her. Despite his warning that with every new life comes a death, she and her husband the king (John C. Reilly) take the risk to have the child they long for and off he goes in a diving costume evocative of Jules Verne in search of the aquatic monstrosity with a big heart. And thus Elias (Christian Lees) is born. And with his birth comes a death…
In a realm not far away, another king (Toby Jones) leads a rather dull existence, until a flee lands on his hand one boring evening. Feeding it blood and leftover meats, the insect gradually metamorphoses into a full-grown domestic pet. When it dies, the king keeps the creature’s skin and promises his husband-seeking daughter’s hand in marriage to whomever can identify the skin. His ploy to keep his daughter Viola (Bebe Cave) at his side fails when an ogre (Guillaume Delaunay) with a strong olfactory sense finds the answer. The poor girl is thus whisked off against her will to live in a cave…
A lustful king, played by Vincent Cassel, becomes infatuated with a young girl after he hears her singing in a melodious, angelic voice. His nights of debauchery seem to be over as he attempts to court her, but she refuses to show her face because in reality Dora (Hayley Carmichael) is a haggard old lady who lives with her sister Imma (Shirley Henderson). Unable to extricate herself from this awkward situation, yet desiring to relive her youth, Dora promises to spend the night with him. After she makes him promise to meet her in the pitch black of his bedroom, Imma helps her regain a youthful appearance by gluing her skin and sagging boobs into a more youthful position, a scene that very much resonates with today’s obsession with cosmetic procedures.
As Cassel says, “The themes evoked in the film are very modern ones”: the desperate desire for a child and what lengths a woman will go to in order to have one; the search for a prince charming and companionship, even with a pet; the obsession with youth and the extreme measures taken to turn back the biological clock, at least from the outside.
When a journalist asks why beauty always triumphs over evil in fairy tales, John C. Reilly defends this fable by declaring the question to be ridiculous. As he says, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Here, beauty does not necessarily triumph over “ugliness.” Here the princess is not Cinderella or Rapunzel, saved by a brave prince, young and handsome and everything a girl thinks will lead to her happiness.
A former painter, Garrone uses the screen as his canvas. Against a luminous backdrop, the colors are saturated, almost bleeding out of the screen. One of the most evocative scenes is of Hayek eating the sea monster’s heart. Dressed in black and sitting in a pure white dining room, the giant bright red heart looks real. When asked how it tasted, Hayek is formal: “Disgusting. Our director here wanted the inside of the heart identical to the real heart. It not just from the outside that it looks perfect. He needed inside, all the exact parts. God forbid, I could have died and the doctor would recognize it as the artery. It was made of pasta and candy and all kinds of disgusting things, I wanted to throw up. Thankfully my daughter Valentina was there… and she came after the third [take] — and you have to look happy eating it — and she said to me, ‘If you bite from the front, you can go to the back and spit it out!”
Hayek also had a hard time “reading” Garrone. “You enter his world which is bizarre, but now you have to enter his head. And as an actress, I like to guess what they’re (the director) going think, but you could never guess what he was going to think. It was a wonderful experiences because you have to be completely vulnerable and available emotionally and physically because a lot of the scenes very physically challenging. Massimo [Cantini Parrini, costume designer] stand up!”
Massimo, sitting with the journalists at the press conference, obeys the queen, who recounts her ordeal like a stand-up comic.
“He never made me a dress that weighed less than 30 kilos. So when Matteo made me go around and around the labyrinth, he would say, ‘OK, come to this room, it’s right here. But I had to walk for 25 minutes in the big dress to get to where he wanted me. And then I was so exhausted and he said, ‘Oh, look at the light. We have to do the close-up again because…’ It’s after eight or nine hours and I’m all sweating. ‘Come here, just to this side.’ I said, ‘Matteo, it’s 45 minutes. I won’t make it, the light will change.’ ‘So jump!’ And so I actually tried to jump but the dress was so heavy that I got stuck. They couldn’t bring the crate to pull me up. He was standing right next to me where I was laying flat because the dress was so heavy… And he’s saying, ‘Somebody pick her up!’ Like three times, I was so humiliated. And Massimo’s screaming — I’m like dying there — he’s screaming, ‘The dress! The dress!’ It was challenging every day.”
Newcomer Bebe Cave, who plays the princess Viola, also understood pretty early on that Garrone had his own way of working with his actors. He pushed her to improvise so that she could get into the skin of the princess, almost creating her own interpretation of the character. “I can relate to my character, not because I’m royalty or a princess, but because she’s yearning for adventure like any other teenager.” She wants more from life than live in a gilded cage with her boring father. Yet she is not your typical fairy tale figure of innocence waiting for a handsome prince to come and save her. On the contrary, she ends up saving herself. She went from being a naive young girl to someone strong.
“I was surprised by how generous Matteo was with his creative output. In the morning, I really had no idea what we would be filming. It was frightening because he seemed to have so much trust in me and Toby and everyone to play around with lines. And so when I realized I had to improvise… It is such a big film, it would be more comforting to have lines exactly scripted out for you so you know exactly what you’re doing. But after two or three days after his new way of working, I realized that he was giving us the chance to actually familiarize ourselves with the characters and shape them to us so they were more than just archetypes of fairy tales. I started to really feel like I was making a contribution to the film. I could’ve just been wearing a dress and saying what he told me to say, I actually felt like I was doing something creative, you know?”
Garrone adapted his stories from the collection of fairy tales Lo Cunto de li Cunto, written by Neapolitan author Giambattista Basile in the 17th century and which went on to inspire the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and Charles Perrault. He deploys all the archetypal fairy tale characters: royalty, a witch, an ogre, a monstrous creature, a naive princess. Another important character in the film is Alexandre Desplat’s xylophone-dominated score. It almost tells the story itself and lends a relief to the images, as if making them three-dimensional.
He admits he took artistic liberties with the original stories. “I can say the ending is changed. We changed a lot, but not the soul.”
John C. Reilly knew the movie was special. “One of these questions I get is ‘how did you decide to do the project? How did you make it yours?’ I heard that Matteo was doing a movie about fairy tales in Italy, my only question was, ‘how quickly can I get there?’ Another question is about Massimo’s costumes. You walk into this place and it transforms into these characters by Matteo and his team. I feel very lucky to be here and I predicted it would be here, by the way!”
Reilly is talking about the Cannes Film Festival, of course. It is early days, but I expect the film to win an award.