“Grace of Monaco,” starring Nicole Kidman, opened the 67th Cannes International Film Festival on Wednesday evening. Grace Kelly, whose life is the focus of the film, was one of those stars with a unique screen presence. Kidman lacks that presence
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The film, by French director Olivier Dahan, tells how Kelly in 1956 married Prince Rainier III of Monaco and retired, abandoning her film career to take up the role of his princess. She even saved the principality at a time of danger, when Charles de Gaulle’s France threatened to invade and annex it.
Among those present at the press conference that followed the press screening, which ended with no applause and even some catcalls, were the director and his two stars, Nicole Kidman, who plays Kelly, and Tim Roth, who plays Prince Rainier. Dahan’s film presents their marriage as part of a great romance.
At the party Kidman, whose face is like the mask of a beautiful doll, was asked whether she would consider giving up her art for love. “Yes,” Kidman answered without hesitation, but she said that luckily she has never been required to make that choice. She added that she didn’t marry a prince either, and then she caught her mistake, and remarked charmingly: “But I am married to a prince. A prince of country music!” referring to her husband, singer Keith Urban.
At another revelatory moment, when referring to the fact that Kelly abandoned acting at the height of her stardom, after already having won an Oscar and worked with director Alfred Hitchcock three times, Kidman said that high points in her career were often accompanied by low points in her private life (probably referring to the films she appeared in toward the end of her previous marriage to actor Tom Cruise).
If that’s the case, and if she really is married to a prince, we have to hope that her new film won’t be a high point in her career. But that almost certainly won’t happen.
An inimitable presence
Films portraying famous icons are always problematic. Although Dahan prefaces the film with a statement that he is presenting a work of fiction based on real events, which is always an effective excuse, the attempt to portray Kelly in the guise of Kidman doesn’t work. The images of the two stars are so strongly engraved in our consciousness and memory that there is no chance for the two to merge.
There have been many beautiful blond actresses who when they marched down the red carpet were said to be reminiscent of Grace Kelly, but those were just words. Kelly was one of those stars, like Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn or Brigitte Bardot, whose screen presence was unique, something that can’t be explained in words. You simply couldn’t take your eyes off of them. Kidman doesn't manage to convey this quality. The film takes place in the early 1960s, when Kelly hadn’t acted in a film for several years.
When Kelly married Rainier, and the entire world enthusiastically followed the magnificent wedding ceremony, their story was described as a modern fairy tale. The glamorous movie star, from an aristocratic American family, married a prince! In his film, Dahan tries to weave together, on the basis of Kelly’s story, a collection of various types of fairy tales. The film begins as a sad fairy tale — the princess is lonely and miserable and misses Hollywood, and is trying to decide whether to return to the screen in Hitchcock’s film “Marnie.” Her husband supports her, but in the end she turns down the offer.
The story develops into a fairy tale with a happy ending. (The film ignores the fact that the happy ending was cut short by Kelly’s premature death in a traffic accident on the winding roads where Hitchcock filmed their last film together, “To Catch a Thief,” during which she met Rainier). Kelly was happy because of her love for her husband, her children (she had two at the time the film takes place) and her work on behalf of the tiny principality where she chose to live. But Dahan’s treatment of these issues is superficial. The film is crammed with predictable and even schematic scenes and the dialogue is cliche-ridden
Given how Dahan portrays Kelly’s life and marriage, it's surprising her family is expressing strong opposition to the film, apparently due to its invented aspects and the fact that it shows many treacherous intrigues in the palace of the Garibaldi family. Rainier’s relatives, who are also involved in these intrigues, objected to the invasion of a stranger, and an American film star of all people, into their world.
At the press conference, Kidman was asked for her response to this opposition. She said that it makes her sad, but that she understands Kelly’s family, for whom the film is an invasion of privacy. “It’s a child’s job to protect their parent. In that regard, I get it. I get why the children are upset. I can’t say much other than that I have great respect and regard for their mother,” she said. It was an eminently diplomatic answer, which she undoubtedly had prepared in advance.
That said, it shouldn’t surprise us that the managers of the festival chose such an undistinguished film to open the most prestigious film festival in the world. It was directed by a highly regarded French director, it deals with one of the most famous film stars of all times (although she starred in only a small number of films), and it features a contemporary star, who is popular with the festival, and many of whose previous films made their debut there.