A shot of Salma Hayek devouring a sea monster’s heart—cooked by a virgin, no less—has become the key image associated with Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales, which premiered Thursday in competition at Cannes. This exercise in extreme eating is a shaman’s novel cure for the Queen of Longtrellis’s inability to give birth to an heir.
Freely adapted from the 17th century Neapolitan writer Giambattista Basile’s collected stories, Garrone’s film is noteworthy for showcasing a host of other grotesque and bawdy incidents. The randy King of Strongcliff, played with gusto by Vincent Cassel, routinely tosses wizened old women, who regularly turn up in his bed, out of his castle window. And because of his peculiar infatuation with a giant flea, the scatterbrained King of Highhills (Toby Jones) ends up marrying off his beloved daughter to an ogre.
As Garrone remarked in an interview with The Daily Beast, Basile wrote during an era when “fairy tales” were not children’s fare. Garrone adds that, although he embellished certain aspects of the original stories, there was “plenty of sex and violence in the original. Basile was writing at a time when writers could mix high culture, such as themes similar to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, with popular entertainment.”
Garrone readily admits that there are also affinities between Tale of Tales and Game of Thrones, as well as the gory films of Italian horror master Mario Bava. He refers to Federico Fellini as “my God,” and just as Fellini started out making neorealist films and eventually became more of a fabulist in movies like Satyricon, Garrone admits, “I tried to emphasize the fantastic elements in the dealings of the Camorra in Gomorrah [Garrone’s film on Naples’ criminal underworld, winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes ‘08] while I attempted to find the realistic aspects of the fantasy in Tale of Tales. We were able to take certain liberties without betraying the source. Although Basile’s version of Rapunzel is well known, most of the stories are almost completely unknown, especially outside of Italy.”
Some aspects of Garrone’s film seem startlingly modern. A convoluted subplot in which two elderly sisters, Imma (Shirley Henderson) and Dora (Hayley Carmichael) known as “crones” in fairy tale lingo, find themselves at odds when Dora is magically transformed into a beautiful, younger version of herself, mirrors the contemporary desire to prolong youth, whether through plastic surgery, Botox injections, or a yearning for perpetual adolescence.
For Garrone, “since these tales deal with common motifs and archetypes, they’re always universal and modern. These stories are about human feelings pushed to their extremes. And, for me, this movie deals with desire at a point where it turns into obsession. For some reason, I’m always concerned with obsession in my films.” In concrete terms, this kind of obsessive desire is personified by the King of Strongcliff’s sexual voraciousness. Cassel appears to be having a fine time chewing the scenery—Garrone compares his virtuosity to the finely honed histrionics of the late Vittorio Gassman—as he takes part in ad hoc orgies and becomes easily seduced by wily crones. Garrone emphasizes that “it was important to cast actors who conformed to certain physical types. I thought Salma Hayek was perfect as a 17th century Spanish queen and Toby Jones effortlessly combined humor and pathos. He switched easily from tragedy to comedy. I was nervous when Salma and the rest of the cast were seeing the film for the first time the other night at the premiere. But I was relieved when the audience laughed in the right places and stayed serious at other times.”
The 46-year-old was a painter before becoming a filmmaker, and although many critics have carped that Tale of Tales is far from his best work, it’s undeniable that he’s lavished considerable attention on visual detail. He’s full of praise for his cinematographer Peter Suschitzky’s [a regular Cronenberg collaborator] ability to capture both the “fanciful and realistic aspects of Basile’s legacy. “
“The film, while written by four men, is actually told primarily from a woman’s perspective,” emphasizes Garrone. Of course, while Tale of Tales’ female characters are what could be called “strong women,” they’re certainly not plaster saints. Hayek’s steely queen is ruthless and the bickering sisters are as wily and sassy as they are resourceful. Even though fairy tales feed on stock concepts of good vs. evil, Basile’s protagonists are neither unblemished heroes nor irredeemable villains.