Matteo Garrone is one of a triumvirate of Italians in competition in Cannes and he opens the bidding with a strong hand in Tale of Tales, an anthology of stories that put the grim into Grimm.
The film opens with John C. Reilly and Salma Hayek as the childless king and queen of a faraway land. Prepared to do anything to bear a child, the royals make a pact with a stranger, bearing a strong resemblance to the Grim Reaper (that word again), who makes clear the relationship between death and birth. And so Reilly heads off to kill a sea monster, and twins are conceived and born in a single day to the queen and a virgin housemaid.
What makes these tales so striking is their complete refusal to follow their expected paths. We think the king’s youthful bride will seek revenge for being dumped (out of a window), we think a handsome youth will save the princess from the ogre (he doesn’t), and we imagine the twin sea creatures will return to the deep, but they don’t.
Like babes in the wood, the audience takes wrong turns and is tripped up by Garrone’s guile and sleight of hand. Alexandre Desplat offers booming tones for the watery scenes and we hear beating hearts pulsating through his music, which underscores the sense of dread and pursuit.
What is Garrone’s strength might also be his weakness: his reluctance to follow a familiar narrative also confuses us. There is nothing to unite these three tales, save the final scene (where we see the queen stripped of her youth and merely glimpse her sister’s multicoloured hair, her flayed face lurking tantalisingly offscreen).
This is not really a children’s film, though some may relish its violent monsters, yet it is not exactly for adults (except, perhaps, ardent Game of Thrones fans). It is dark, yet there are plenty of comic moments, usually thanks to Cassel, revelling in his umpteenth sexual deviant role. It is odd and elusive, willing its audience to follow it into a magical land all of Garrone’s making.