Grace of Monaco

June 7, 2014
Nicole Kidman in 'Grace of Monaco' (2014)
Nicole Kidman in 'Grace of Monaco' (2014)

In every photograph, French director, Olivier Dahan, is shown wearing a hat. Sometimes it’s a beret, but more often a baggy, brimmed affair that makes him look like a fashion-conscious engine driver. Although I’m no style guru, it seems a rather silly affectation.

In theory a director’s dress sense shouldn’t have any relevance to the kind of movies he or she makes. One never asks what John Ford was wearing when he directed Stage Coach. Yet after watching Grace of Monaco, I couldn’t help wondering if Dahan’s taste in hats denoted a deeper set of attitudes that are reflected in his filmmaking. There is, for instance, a taste for style over substance; a willingness to treat the facts of real life as if they were only another kind of fiction; a belief that what audiences crave more than anything is make-believe and romance.

Dahan is best known for La Vie en Rose (2007), his bio pic about Edith Piaf, which became a world-wide hit. It was weepie and a melodrama, but most critics gave it the benefit of the doubt, largely because of a stellar performance by Marion Cotillard in the lead role. With Grace of Monaco, starring Our Nic as Grace Kelly, Dahan has used up his credit.

The film was blasted at Cannes, and has now reached that state of purgatory in which commentators seek to distinguish themselves from the herd by claiming it’s not that bad. This is a very worrying sign, and I’m obliged to confirm the early reports: there is barely a scene in Grace of Monaco when I didn’t find myself cringing. It is a film so spectacularly misconceived it’s hard to know where to begin a critique.

Dahan himself begins with a quotation from Grace Kelly that reads: “The idea of my life as a fairy tale is itself a fairy tale.” Having set the scene for a story that rips the veil from the privileged existence of a latter-day princess, he proceeds to treat the entire story as a Mills & Boon romance, albeit with an absurd political subplot.

It’s no secret nowadays that Grace Kelly, the cool, frosty screen goddess with impeccable intonation, had affairs with most of her leading men. Kelly’s love life was almost as unruly as that of her eventual husband, Prince Rainier III of Monaco, with the salient difference that he recommenced his activities almost as soon as they were back from their honeymoon. None of this is hinted at in the film, which portrays Grace as being only slightly less saintly than Mother Theresa. Tim Roth’s Rainier looks too bored and tired to do anything but puff another fag and look lovingly at his trophy wife through thick glasses.

By 1962, Grace had been six years in Monaco and was almost certainly disenchanted with her eminent position. When her old admirer Alfred Hitchcock turned up with the script of Marnie, and suggested a return to the movies, she was eager to comply. It was, however, an impossibility for a princess to play a neurotic thief who gets raped by Sean Connery.

At the same time, Monaco was suffering a political crisis brought about by General de Gaulle’s demands that the small principality pay French taxes. This was a storm-in-a-teacup in geopolitical terms, but in the film it takes on the magnitude of World War 3.

Dahan and his scriptwriter, Arash Amel, tie these two plot lines together in a truly mind-boggling manner. No wonder the Monaco royals have complained about the “historical inaccuracies”. Dahan, for his part, has claimed that he had no intention of making a bio pic. He sees the film as the story of an artist forced to give up her art to accept the responsibilities of the high public office that is her destiny. He has other stories too: the film is actually a dual portrait – of Grace Kelly and Nicole Kidman. Most risibly, it’s a metaphor for all women’s lives.

The upshot of this grand underlying pattern, is a tale in which Princess Grace emerges as the single-handed saviour of Monaco. She has a quick lesson in ethics from Father Francis Tucker (Frank Langella), an American priest who calls her “Gracie”; before mastering the French language and local etiquette with the assistance of the mincing Count Fernando (Derek Jacobi). In this fortified state she puts her screen dreams aside and launches a charm offensive on the world. She even charms the wicked de Gaulle, who is portrayed as a James Bond villain with an evil chortle – “Nya, Ha, Ha, Ha, Haaaa!”

Don’t worry about the historical inaccuracies, there is so much wrong with this film the violence done to the truth seems a mere slap on the wrist. Firstly there is the script, which was apparently the subject of a bidding war. If so, it must have been auctioned sight-unseen, like an apartment bought off the plan. Amel has a knack for dialogue that makes Dan Brown seem like Thomas Mann. It is a veritable anthology of clichés.

The music is scarcely less astonishing, being used to underscore every tiny dramatic climax with a red highlighter. As the crowds gather for the Red Cross Ball of 1962, I was looking around for the monster shark that must surely be approaching under cover of darkness.

Then there is the fetishisation of Nicole Kidman, who spends the entire movie changing from one designer outfit to the next in a never-ending fashion show. For most of the film she is modelling rather than acting. Being 11 cms taller than Grace Kelly and 14 years older than Kelly was in 1962, it is a remarkable piece of casting; although hardly more bizarre than casting Robert Lindsay as Aristotle Onassis.

Our Nic makes no attempt to do the accent, which may have been a shrewd decision. She really only needed to concentrate on her eye make-up, as the camera keeps zooming in on her face, making it look as if she’s peering through a letter box. It would be futile to complain about the quality of the acting, as nobody seems comfortable with the lines they have to deliver. Like the audience, perhaps they couldn’t believe in the vision of Monaco – domain of high rolling gamblers and tax avoiders – as a holy empire defended by a fairy tale princess.

Grace of Monaco
Directed by Olivier Dahan
Screenplay by Arash Amel
Starring Nicole Kidman, Tim Roth,
France/USA/Belgium/Italy, rated ?, 103 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 7 June, 2014.