Movies may be the main attraction, but the Cannes Film Festival always offers an array of cartoonish pleasures outside the screening rooms.
A stroll around town on Tuesday evening—less than 24 hours before the event’s official start—did not disappoint. The storied Grand Hotel bar patio found the usual mix of slick Hollywood types loudly talking business, slapping each other on the back and exchanging cards. Deliciously bad techno thumped from the clubs that line the Croisette, as young women teetered along in too-high heels. And a very famous French producer proceeded to get spectacularly drunk at a restaurant, making off-color jokes and getting handsy with various female companions who giggled and shook their heads at his incorrigible ways. The expression on the face of a journalist who arrived for a scheduled interview with the industry heavyweight was worth every euro I shelled out for my over-priced drink.
If only this year’s opening film was a fraction as entertaining.
Indeed, the festival took off, and quickly came crashing down to earth, Wednesday with Grace of Monaco, a dreadful Grace Kelly biopic that earned boos and hisses from a rightfully irritated press at the morning screening.
Olivier Dahan’s movie, starring Nicole Kidman as the Hollywood-actress-turned-European-princess, has been making headlines for years at this point. First, Prince Albert II and his sisters, Princesses Caroline and Stephanie, slammed the screenplay—to which they were granted advance access—for “major historical inaccuracies.” Then Frenchman Dahan accused US distributor Harvey Weinstein of “re-editing” his opus into a “commercial” movie that “looked like a trailer.” Finally, the festival’s artistic director, Thierry Frémaux, reassured everyone that, Cannes being Cannes, the version of Grace of Monaco shown on the French Riviera would be the auteur’s cut.
Watching the film, one wonders if Father Harvey knew best.
Dahan hinges his story on two dubiously intertwined developments: Kelly’s conflicted feelings about possibly returning to Hollywood to star in Hitchcock’s Marnie and the standoff between her husband, Prince Rainier III (played by Tim Roth), and French President Charles de Gaulle over Monaco’s status as a tax haven.
The director drains any potential juice from the personal and political dramas of Kelly’s life as a royal by coating his film in an insipid biopic gloss. Christopher Gunning’s score swells as Dahan’s camera glides through sumptuous parties (at which we are given cursory introductions to luminaries like Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis), and characters speak in sound bites and platitudes. There’s not an unfamiliar beat in the entire movie.
Meanwhile, our leading lady sighs, swoons and sobs without any visible muscle movement on her wrinkle-free forehead or above her tremulous upper lip. Kidman has proven herself a ferociously alive character actress in roles such as the anguished Virginia Woolf in The Hours, the narcissistic author in Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding, or the blowsy femme fatale in Lee Daniels’ criminally underrated The Paperboy. But in more diva-like lead parts (this one, or in Cold Mountain, for example), she tends to vacillate between overly remote and slightly mannered, and screenwriter Arash Amel has given her little to play aside from mostly contained frustration (it doesn’t help that cinematographer Eric Gautier often bathes her in harsh light that calls attention to a sloppily sprayed-on hairline).
The film’s makers want us to see Grace as resilient and resourceful, but in Grace of Monaco she’s mainly a bore; there’s nary a hint of the feline sexiness or mischief that made her such a treat in movies like Rear Window or To Catch a Thief, and when Dahan shoots Kidman’s eyes in close-up at an emotional climax, you search, in vain, for something other than generic distress.
Dahan’s Edith Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose was hardly great art, but powered by Marion Cotillard’s searing turn, it at least had a pulse. Grace of Monaco is utterly lethargic.
This is the world’s premiere film festival—and the sun is shining for now—so let’s put an optimistic spin on things: after an opening film like that, things can only get better. Right?