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‘Tale of Tales’ Cannes Review: Salma Hayek and John C. Reilly Explore the Dark Side of Fables

Director Matteo Garrone has come up with an amalgam of Ken Russell and old-school Disney

Fairy tales used to be cautionary for children: Don’t grow up to be terrible people or terrible things will happen to you. Our modern animated films dance around this same idea, but the heroes are never treated to deserved schadenfreude because we can’t write American happiness that way. The boy has to get the girl. The bad guys have to get caught. Life has to be idealized so maximum happiness is achieved.

Great storytelling will never let us off so easily.

Matteo Garrone is known for depicting real worlds, as he did with “Gomorrah,” a naked depiction of who and what the modern mafia are. It’s surprising that he’d delve into fantasy for his latest film, “Tale of Tales” (“Il Racconto Dei Racconti”), which screened for the press and industry on Wednesday but officially premieres on Thursday at the Cannes Film Festival.

That he dedicates the film to his two children is even more surprising — just try to find any American parents brave enough to show their children this movie. “Tale of Tales” is easily a hard R by the MPAA’s standards, depicting ridiculing and celebrating the good, the bad and the ugly of human nature.

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“Tale of Tales” is adapted by Garrone and three other writers from Giambattista Basile’s “The Tale of Tales or Entertainment for Little Ones.” It takes a bit of time to hit its rhythm, switching back and forth between three 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 into it and expected to keep up.

The film is in English, not Garrone’s native language, which makes it all the more surprising that the humor here is so subtle; many in the audience on Wednesday did not really think they were allowed to laugh in 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 U.S. distributors who can’t aim the film at kids and might not find its ideal niche among ticket buyers.

Salma Hayek plays a controlling queen who is so eager for a baby she must follow a bizarre ritual to make one magically appear. Vincent Cassel plays a debaucherous king who can have any woman in the kingdom yet still seeks out the only one he’s never seen. They are joined by Toby Jones, John C. Reilly and the one who mostly steals the movie, Bebe Cave, as the princess waiting for Prince Charming.

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Some of the characters are brought down by their desires; others triumph. We’ve become conditioned to a set paradigm for storytelling in children’s movies, but this film has no interest in following that. It freely goes where it wants, resulting in a kind of amalgam of Ken Russell and old-school Disney, which was so full of darkness that many adults remember being traumatized by them. Some will find the moral of these stories unsatisfying, because Garrone makes sure these characters don’t get what they want — instead, they get what they need.

“Tales of Tales” is a reminder that a captivating story can hold us much longer than any kind of masterful visual effect. The themes are broad and archetypical: women’s fear of aging, men’s fear of women aging, a mother’s possessiveness of her son … Though the film is about fairy tales, it feels more truthful abut the human experience than any film aimed at children released in America in the past 30 years, with the possible exception of Guillermo del Toro‘s “Pan’s Labyrinth.”

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This is a breathtaking film for those who still believe in the power of imagination, who haven’t given all of it over to artists who do the work for you. It is about opening hidden doors and climbing upside-down staircases, about losing control when we try to manage fate. Most of all it is a reminder that the fairy tale, above all other things, still retains its power to shock, dazzle, teach and entertain.