CANNES (AFP) - The Cannes Film Festival competition saw its first hit Thursday with the Italian-made, English-language Tale Of Tales, a bloody Gothic fable that drew comparisons with the best of Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton.
Capitalising on the current popularity of fantasy, not least the blockbuster Game Of Thrones television series, director Matteo Garrone tracks the fortunes of mad monarchs, desperate queens and the denizens of their dark, enchanted kingdoms.
Garrone, 46, picked up the runner-up prize in Cannes in 2008 for his Mafia saga Gomorrah and in 2012 for his reality television send-up Reality, and is among 19 contenders gunning for this year's Palme d'Or, to be awarded on May 24.
Il Racconto Dei Racconti tells four loosely interconnected stories, with a cast including Salma Hayek, John C. Reilly, Vincent Cassel and Britain's Toby Jones.
The film is based on the work of Giambattista Basile, an Italian count who in the 1600s produced a volume of 50 tales based in part on oral traditions he had collected in Crete and Venice. Two centuries before the Brothers Grimm began striking fear into the hearts of children, Basile brought to life a world of sorcerers, ogres and fearsome beasts.
Garrone said he found something "Shakespearean" in the tales that were at once ancient and "extremely modern", which led him to make the picture in the international lingua franca. He said: "I thought filming this in English would give it a more universal dimension."
"I tried to go back to the origins of cinema with images that would surprise audiences," added Garrone, who began his career as a painter.
Reilly plays a besotted king who agrees to do underwater battle with a giant sea monster because a soothsayer has told him that if his childless wife (Hayek) eats the creature's heart, she will immediately become pregnant.
Hayek said she nearly vomited during the incessant takes of her devouring a hyperrealistic model of the bloody organ, made in part of Italian pasta. She said despite the fantastical aspects of the story, many women may relate to the depiction of the more primal aspects of motherhood.
"If you're Mexican or Lebanese or Italian, this obsession for the child, the overwhelming love for the child, is something that many women can understand," she said with a laugh.
Jones, best known for appearances in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the Captain America series and as Truman Capote in the biopic Infamous, plays a monarch with a restless daughter and a frightening case of empty-nest syndrome. He begins nurturing a flea with his own blood that quickly balloons to giant dimensions, supplanting his wayward daughter in his affections.
The third strand of the story involves a randy king who is duped by grizzled spinsters into falling in love with one of them, with comic and tragic results.
Early reviews after a press preview ahead of the film's red-carpet premiere later Thursday gave it a strong boost as the Cannes race got underway.
Peter Bradshaw of London's Guardian newspaper gave it five out of five stars, calling it "fabulous in every sense".
"It is gloriously mad, rigorously imagined, visually wonderful: erotic, hilarious and internally consistent," he said. "The sort of film, in fact, which is the whole point of Cannes. It immerses you in a complete created world."
US movie website Indiewire called the movie "Monty Python by way of Tim Burton and The Princess Bride with "some of the best... effects this side of Pan's Labyrinth" by Cannes jury member Guillermo del Toro.
Britain's Daily Telegraph said that Tale Of Tales was "the kind of film you've spent 10 years wishing Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton would make".
The movie "dances on a razor's edge between funny and unnerving, with sequences of shadow-spun horror rubbing up against moments of searing baroque beauty. The result is a fabulously sexy, defiantly unfashionable readymade cult item," its reviewer Robbie Collin said.