The first bomb of Cannes ’14 landed in France several hours before I did. Grace Of Monaco, the festival’s opening night selection, screened for the press yesterday morning, while I was still on a delayed flight from Chicago. The reactions were almost universally unkind. Cannes often commences with a splashy title, something glamorous and star-studded, and this fact-based melodrama—the embellished tale of Grace Kelly bristling under the restrictions of royal life, with Nicole Kidman as the actress-turned-princess—seemed in theory like a suitable selection. (The fact that Kelly met her future hubby at the Cannes Film Festival surely helped the film’s cause.) But with the inevitable parade of celebrity attendees came a wave of bad reviews; unlike The Great Gatsby, last year’s dolled-up, out-of-competition opener, Grace Of Monaco inspired few defenses.
I won’t be offering one either, though the vitriol some have spat at this Peter Morgan-ish trifle seems out of proportion with the film’s very ordinary badness. Would Grace Of Monaco (Grade: C) look as terrible anywhere but at Cannes, the world’s most prestigious film festival? What I saw, a full day after many of my peers, was another failed attempt to wring speculative drama from celebrity biography—a movie no better or worse than My Week With Marilyn, another Weinstein acquisition about a depressed, burdened Hollywood starlet. Okay, maybe a little worse: That film had Michelle Williams’ uncanny embodiment of Marilyn Monroe, while this one has Nicole Kidman struggling mightily (but unsuccessfully) to match the poise and effervescence of Grace Kelly.
Speaking of the Weinsteins, Harvey was a no-show at the premiere, possibly because the film’s director, Olivier Dahan (La Vie En Rose), submitted his own cut instead of the one being prepared for U.S. theaters. It’s easy to imagine a worse version of Grace Of Monaco, but it’s hard to imagine a better one, as that would require a fundamental reworking of its basic components. Set in the early 1960s, the film begins with Alfred Hitchcock (Roger Ashton-Griffiths, even less convincing than Anthony Hopkins was in Hitchcock) offering the Princess Of Monaco a role in his new film, Marnie. “The world needs Grace Kelly back on the big screen,” he pleads—but Kelly has essentially retired, her life at the palace incompatible with that of a Hollywood movie star. When she expresses interest in the part, her husband, Prince Rainier (Tim Roth), is initially supportive, but quickly changes his tune. At the time, Rainier was engaged in a very public dispute with French president Charles De Gaulle, who threatened to cut all imports to the principality unless Monaco began taxing its (mostly wealthy) citizens and sending the earnings to France. Were Kelly to return to showbiz, it might be seen as her “abandoning” her prince and her people—a PR blunder during a time of crisis.
In other words, Grace Of Monaco is ostensibly about the personal and professional sacrifices Kelly made when she agreed to wear the crown. Alas, the movie wants to have its royal cake and eat it too: Dahan relentlessly fetishizes his heroine’s glamorous “prison,” and treats her eventual acceptance of her duties—and her abandonment of her acting dreams—with a mixture of melancholy and admiration. (There’s a ridiculous montage of Kidman getting the Pygmalion treatment, which involves learning to properly, wordlessly convey certain emotions, like “arrogance” and “contentment.”) In case the movie’s themes aren’t plain enough, Frank Langella is on hand to spell them out; his priest/mentor figure speaks mostly in pep-talk affirmations, helpfully reminding Kelly that “Princess Of Monaco” is her greatest role ever and that—to paraphrase the actress’ supposed own words, immortalized in the epigraph—the fairy tale image of her life is itself a fairy tale. Subtle, this movie isn’t.
Almost as obvious, though much less frivolous, was the first of this year’s competition titles, the African tragedy Timbuktu (Grade: B-). Named for the town in which it’s set, the film concerns the recent influx of jihadists into Northern Mali, watching with great empathy as the locals are brutally subjected to the harshest tenets of Islamist law. For a while, the movie functions as a compelling portrait of a multicultural community, one in which people of different languages and faiths coexist; there’s also a fair amount of sly humor to the early scenes—a surprising attribute, given the deadly serious resume of director Abderrahmane Sissako (Bamako, Waiting For Happiness). But then a conflict develops between two of the local families, the jihadists intervene, and out come the stones. (An opening scene of the newcomers using traditional art as target practice portends the trouble ahead.)
Timbuktu is sincere and brutally honest about the destructiveness of fundamentalist law, taking time to show the damage it does to those it victimizes and those who uphold it. But the film is also bluntly single-minded in its aims, ultimately amounting to little more than a loud lament. The careful character groundwork it lays is just set up for a series of injustices. Still, some harsh truths are more dramatic than others; I’d much rather sit through several more anti-extremist screeds than listen to the rich and famous complain about the burdens of being rich and famous.