CANNES, France — “Je m’appelle Max.” Now that’s an opening line, so much better in French, and it’s just one reason I’m glad I waited to see Mad Max: Fury Road here in Cannes on the morning of the festival’s second day, Thursday, rather than at home in the States last week.
The screening started at 8:30, and especially when jet lag comes into play, one can always use more beauty sleep. But even though I didn’t enjoy the picture much — it kicks off at such a high pitch that there’s nowhere for it to go but bigger and louder, and it offers just more of the same fractured, visually nonsensical editing we get in nearly every contemporary action film — it’s a painless way to ease yourself into more than ten days of movies about suffering peasants and the like. Plus, I’m all in favor of festivals, classier-than-thou Cannes in particular, programming the occasional action-and-explosion extravaganza: Contrary to what some people may tell you, these movies don’t represent the end of civilization as we know it, and even though Mad Max — playing out of competition — is a Hollywood vehicle filmed largely in Namibia by an Australian director (original Mad Max mack daddy George Miller), it’s not any crazier or more extravagantly violent than your typical Luc Besson special. Actually, it’s not crazy enough; it could use some of Besson’s Eurosteroid madness.
But it does feature two charismatic, enjoyable stars, Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy, and my sense is that even if the super-discriminating Cannes press audience didn’t like the film very much, they at least enjoyed the experience of being there. The communal spirit of filmgoing as we used to know it, an esprit de corps that is sadly disappearing in the era of VOD and Netflix, is alive and well at film festivals, where the faithful continue to gather and hope for the best. I started thinking more about this — specifically, the joy to be had in watching a movie with other people, for fun or for work — after seeing Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales, a lavish and unsettling fantasy based on the pre-Grimm fairytales of early-seventeenth-century Neapolitan poet and courtier Giambattista Basile.
Salma Hayek is a morose queen so desperate for a child that her devoted husband — played by John C. Reilly, who looks as if he were born to have a gilt crown perched jauntily on his head — undertakes a deadly mission that he has been assured will result in a pregnancy: He drops to the bottom of the sea in one of those spooky-looking old-fashioned diver’s suits to kill a surly sea best, whose heart must be fed to the queen. When it’s presented to her on a platter, she tears into without utensils, gnawing away at its muscular crimson mass as if she were a participant in a ghoulish pie-eating contest — or the star of a pantomime skit of Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son.
There’s more: Vincent Cassel plays the louche king of a neighboring land, a rake who has become bored with outdoor orgies and the like; when he hears the sultry-sweet singing of a creature whom he believes to be a fair maiden, he woos her with jewels and honeyed words. Eventually, she does become his bride — she’s played by Stacy Martin, of Nymphomaniac fame — but because this is a fairytale, nothing is as it seems, not even Cassel’s demure, ivory-skinned bride. Meanwhile, another kingdom over, Toby Jones plays a ruler who becomes so enthralled with his pet flea that he ignores his sweet but rather simpering daughter (Bebe Cave).
Tale of Tales is a world away from Garrone’s best-known film, the 2008 mobster drama Gomorrah, and though it seems to have been reasonably well received here by critics, I get the sense that many don’t think it’s worth taking seriously. A colleague summed it up as a “Cannes popcorn movie,” implying that it was an elaborate bit of fluff that’s just smart enough for this smarty-pants crowd. But I think the movie’s ambition and grace takes it further than that. Tale of Tales is opulent and dusty at once: The costumes look lived in rather than just put on, and the sequence in which Reilly sinks to the bottom of the ocean in his heavy iron suit, to surprise the colossal, somnambulant sea beast, is a feverish, misty vision of wonder and horror. That royal pet flea, with its pinky-gray skin (this isn’t like any flea you’ve ever seen), is the sort of half-charming, half-menacing creature that might have been dreamed up by Guillermo del Toro.
Overall, the picture has a vaguely sinister, erotic energy: I guess you could take mature, well-adjusted kids to see it, but I probably wouldn’t. It also features gorgeously enigmatic music from Alexandre Desplat, a gifted composer who, of late, has been squirting out too many soundalike scores like spritz from a cookie press. This one is distinctive and haunting.
Tale of Tales and my colleague’s comment made me think harder about why I’ve always hated the term “popcorn movie” (the Cannes type or otherwise). When critics and snobs use it, it’s inherently derisive, presupposing a restrictive set of either/or judgments: Movies can be either art or entertainment, drudgery or joy, instructive or brain-cell-killing. (The unspoken kicker is “and we’re going to be the ones to tell you which is which.”) When loyal and frequent moviegoers use the term, it often comes laced with a sense of guilt, as if they feel the need to apologize for having enjoyed something. (“Guilty pleasure” is another phrase, and idea, that I loathe.)
In terms of content, style, and craftsmanship, Tale of Tales couldn’t be more different from Mad Max: Fury Road, but both underscore the hold that movies can have on us: Sometimes we want to be awed and overwhelmed, but even so, the idea that we automatically turn off our brains — or should turn off our brains — in the presence of something big and dumb, like Mad Max, is absurd and insulting. The pleasure of movies is more complex than that. Je t’aime, Mad Max! In theory, at least.