Tale of Tales ★★½

49/100

[Originally written as part of my first Cannes '15 dispatch for The Dissolve.]

Every year, my entreaty to the Cannes Film Festival is the same: “Show me something I’ve never seen before—something I couldn’t possibly have anticipated.” Cannes almost always obliges, whether it’s via Lars von Trier shooting an entire three-hour movie on a Brechtian chalk-outline stage (2003’s Dogville) or Jean-Luc Godard reinventing the possibilities of 3-D (in last year’s Goodbye To Language). “Let’s get the blindsiding out of the way early,” the 2015 edition apparently decided. This year’s festival served up a triple helping of WTF right on Day One. Things I had never seen before, and certainly did not anticipate, include (but are by no means limited to): Salma Hayek feasting on the bloody heart of a giant sea monster, an old crone suckling the breast of some strange woman in the forest and transforming into the younger version of Joe from Nymphomaniac, and Toby Jones raising a flea that grows to be the size of a hippopotamus.

Those bizarro items are all from the same film. Italy’s Matteo Garrone began his career as a grim, gritty realist (The Embalmer, Gomorrah), but his last feature, Reality, took a sharply ironic turn into fantasy and religious allegory. Tale Of Tales, Garrone’s new picture, is pre-Grimm, having been loosely adapted from a collection of 16th-century fairy tales curated by Giambattista Basile. (The actual authors are mostly unknown.) The three stories Garrone chose, from a total of 50, all involve royalty in some way, with the various kings and queens portrayed by an international cast, all speaking English. Hayek plays a queen whose desire to have a child inspires her to make some horrific sacrifices. In what’s apparently a neighboring kingdom (the movie’s geography is unclear), Vincent Cassel, as king, falls in love with a woman (Hayley Carmichael) he overhears singing in the street, unaware that she’s withered and old, rather than young and beautiful, as he assumes. And Jones, another nearby monarch, attempts to use his giant flea as a tool to keep his daughter (Bebe Cave) at home, with ghastly results.

That last tale is a wild ride, thanks to some hilariously unexpected twists of fate and a potentially star-making performance by Cave, whose facial expressions and vocal inflection uncannily resemble those of young Emma Thompson. But the other two tales feel relatively skimpy, with long periods of stasis between brief moments of bugfuck invention. Perhaps recognizing this, Garrone constantly skips back and forth among the three narratives, with little rhyme or reason; often, one tale will be abandoned for so long that its return is like suddenly remembering last night’s dream in the middle of the day. Guy Maddin employed that device masterfully in The Forbidden Room (which premiered at Sundance earlier this year), but he did so by burying dozens of stories inside others, like Russian dolls. Here, Garrone just randomly cuts to someone else every so often, killing the momentum every time. Ideally, he’d have made three consecutive shorts with a total running time of perhaps an hour: 30 minutes for “The Flea,” 15 minutes each for the others. But that isn’t marketable, even at a festival.