Almost exactly fifteen minutes into the 2015 Reykjavík International Film Festival, Salma Hayek will eat a sea monster’s heart. The 12th annual RIFF opens on September 24 with ‘Tale Of Tales’, from the Italian director Matteo Garrone, a loose adaptation of three 17th-century fairy tales from ‘Pentamerone’ of Giambattista Basile. This is the oldest surviving written source for versions of Rapunzel and Cinderella; in Basile’s telling of the latter, the fairy godmother emerges from a date tree which Cinderella has tended to with a hoe, a golden bucket and a silken napkin gifted to her by another, different fairy, just to give an idea of the defiantly retro vibe of the narrative here. Though Garrone makes considerable modifications to three of Basile’s lesser-known tales, and links them loosely by setting them in adjacent, occasionally overlapping kingdoms, all three maintain a distinctly pre-Disney feel, rendering archetypes strange with asymmetrical, arbitrary structures and talismanic objects as odd as in the modern versions, but less familiar; and lining up grotesque beasts and frank sexuality alongside miraculous shapeshifting and cloistered princesses.
Catherine Breillat’s recent dreamy versions of ‘Bluebeard’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’ are a comp, but Garrone goes far more baroque. In Salma’s tale, she’s the barren queen whose husband (John C. Reilly) hunts the food that will enable her to bear an albino prince (whose twin is a pauper); Vincent Cassel stars as the sexually voracious nobleman who becomes enraptured, sight unseen, by the voice of a crone who lives with her equally wrinkly sister; Toby Jones is the king who seems more interested in his pet flea than his marriage-minded daughter (the flea certainly has a healthier appetite).
These are not fables, in the sense of being morally instructive (unless “sea monster hearts are not finger food” counts as a moral), but the stories all limn mythic desires (for youth or a child, for love or sated lust), with an intensity capable of engendering tunnel vision, and considerable collateral damage. The actors give strong performances, finding a credible individuality in frankly impossible roles: not Salma Hayek, so much—her job is to look regal, act maternal, be fierce; not too much of a stretch, then—but certainly the strange doddering whimsicality of Toby Jones as the sweet-natured but introverted and flea-obsessed king, and the withered baby talk of Shirley Henderson as one of the old peasant sisters. Nor, as evidenced by the litany of names in the credits, does Garrone shy away from playing diverse regional and second-language English accents off one another. You don’t cast John C. Reilly—with his mashed-potato face and American accent as flat and cheery as Iowa—as a medieval king in an adaptation of a 17th century Italian fairy tale, unless incongruity is a goal. ‘Tale Of Tales’ thus has the same sort of slightly timeless, placeless air as some Italian-shot co-production from the 60s or 70s, with its cast of invariably dubbed international stars—appropriate for versions of fairy tales subsequently adapted by Charles Perrault and then the Brothers Grimm.
The international flavour is also notable in the context of RIFF. In recent years, the fest’s Opening Night film has had an Icelandic connection: a Sigur Rós documentary in 2011 (and 2007!); ‘Queen of Montreuil’, by the late, sorely missed Westman Islands-born French filmmaker Sólveig Anspach (1960-2015), in 2012; ‘This Is Sanlitun’, by the Beijing-based Icelander Róbert I. Douglas in 2013; the Iceland-shot American indie ‘Land Ho!’ last year.
There is no such connection for ‘Tale Of Tales’—this year, RIFF’s organizers have simply gone with a film that played in the main competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, from a filmmaker whose breakout feature, 2008’s ‘Gomorrah’, has received the de facto canonization of a Criterion Collection DVD. Opening with ‘Tale Of Tales’ probably doesn’t mark a sea change in RIFF’s mission—it’s surely just a matter of what’s out there at any given time (there *is* a notable film with Icelandic ties making the rounds on the fall festival circuit at time of writing, but Universal has long had Baltasar Kormákur’s ‘Everest’ locked into a September 18th theatrical release).
However, it does underscore the festival’s greatest ambition: to assemble a line-up that brings local audiences up to speed, and Reykjavík up to par, with the best of international art cinema.
For more information on the RIFF, see their website.