There is a huge general audience for live-action fairy tales, at least judging by the pace at which Disney seems to be greenlighting them. There's less clearly a market for the adult art house version of them, the kind of darker fabulism Guillermo del Toro peddled in his 2006 hit “Pan’s Labyrinth” but that soon devolved into some pretty niche genre fare.
The upstart Italian director Matteo Garrone isn’t that concerned about the size of the audience. Or perhaps more accurately, he believes that there might actually be a pretty substantial one.
Garrone -- who gained acclaim on the global cinema stage for his 2008 mob picture “Gomorrah” and the 2012 “Big Brother” sendup “Reality,” both also playing in competition at the Cannes Film Festival-- makes his English-language debut with “Tale of Tales.” The movie, which will world-premiere at Cannes on Thursday (the prestigious gathering opened Wednesday night), is loosely based on a few of the stories of the 17th century Neapolitan fairy-tale curator Giambattista Basile. And Garrone, at least, thinks grown-ups are ready to hear them.
"The stories Basile wrote, there was no difference between kids and adults, because kids didn’t exist as an audience back then,” Garrone said in a phone interview this week. “These tales were very dark. And adults loved them."
“Tales” has Garrone crosscutting between three (not really related) episodes, all set in an amorphous ancient time with royal courts, palace intrigue and a helping of -- why not? -- mythological beasts. (He's taking the Del Toro thing seriously, apparently.)
One episode concerns a haggard old woman who mysteriously becomes young and beautiful, leaving her equally haggard sister in the lurch. (This may be the first ancient fairy tale to offer up a critique of plastic surgery.) A second is a riff on “Beauty and the Beast” as an ogre takes a princess captive, albeit to subversive results.
The movie’s backbone is a story line about a prince born, through mystical circumstances, to a queen played by Salma Hayek, and the bond he forms with another boy born under the same witchcrafty star. This vignette, like the others, includes some fantastic CGI work and, unlike the others, briefly offers the chance to watch John C. Reilly play a king.
A kind of cynical, we-all-get-what’s-coming (and some of us more than that) vibe radiates under the movie; Garrone isn’t out to spare anyone’s feelings. Fates are cruel and faces are pummeled, and there is more than one character turned to a pulpy mess because of something totally out of their control. It’s subversive, blood-drenched stuff.
Yet “Tales” can also be cheekily funny; there are even some Monty Python-ish moments. the movie also has a feminist air about it, not least because all three main characters are complicated women who help the movie easily pass the Bechdel test.
And with the kind of framed exterior shots (Garrone made the movie in his native Italy) that reflect his pre-director career as a painter, “Tales” is also striking to look at.
But what kind of piece is it exactly? “It’s a fantasy -- really dark but also realistic, a little bit of horror, macabre, funny -- maybe ‘Game of Thrones’ is a reference point?” Garrone struggled, then finally got to, when asked how he would categorize the work.
Whatever its tone--or its larger audience (the film opens in Italy this weekend but is seeking U.S. distribution)--"Tales” could certainly play to the Cannes crowd. That includes the all-important jury. The movie has a decidedly Coen brothers streak--a good thing as they’re heading the competition panel. And oh yes, Del Toro is on the jury too. (He appeared at the opening-night ceremony Wednesday with his fellow judges, reinforcing the “Pan’s” aura.)
Garrone is starting to develop a rare hopscotchy career, his auteurish through-line running under a wide range of genres. But as diverse as his first three features are, they also all exist in a kind of fairy-tale space. They're movies that are as much about the way we tell and retell stories as the particular plots themselves. (Outside of an actual fairy tale, what’s more like that than a mob movie?)
“Tales” is one of three Italian films in competition at the festival (Nanni Moretti’s “Mia Madre” and Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth” round out the group), a surprising renaissance that has not gone unnoticed by the pundit class here.
Two of those films happen to be in English. But Garrone says that might not matter.
“I think you will relate to this no matter where you come from,” Garrone said. “I was worried about directing in a language that wasn't my own. But fairy tales are a universal language.”