Although some may disagree, but the opening night at the Cannes Film Festival is invariably a fairy tale night with celebrities in glittering brocade snaking their way up the red carpet that people die to be on. It is also a night of champagne, caviar and of course the opening movie, which this time was Oliver Dahan's Grace of Monaco. All about a fairy-tale princess, who ran away from popping flashbulbs, chasing journalists and the silver screen to be with the man she loved, the film was screened last evening at the Grand Theatre Lumiere.
Grace Kelly, the darling of legendary directors and the heartthrob of handsome actors, met Prince Rainier during the 1955 Cannes Festival, fell in love with him, sailed away from America and made the Palace of Monaco her home.
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Nicole Kidman played Grace, and Tim Roth, the Prince, and they were all smiles as they inched their way up the red carpet last evening towards the Lumiere. Also gracing the occasion were the president of the jury, the celebrated New Zealand auteur, Jane Campion, along with the other jurors - Sofia Coppola, Willem Dafoe, Gael Garcia Bernal, Nicolas Winding Refn, Carole Bouquet, Leila Hatami, Jia Zhangke and Jeon Do-yeon.
Cannes' topper Thierry Fremaux's decision to slot Grace of Monaco for the inaugural night got him mixed responses. It was certainly a stylish period piece that had the right measure of American and French elements – which is what Cannes has been striving for and getting it too.
But if Fremaux had wished for great reviews, he must have been disappointed. For leading movie journals like The Hollywood Reporter, Screen and Variety did not pan the film outright, but were clearly not happy with it.
The Reporter wrote: "Indeed, it is almost perversely impressive how Dahan misses almost every target and squanders almost every opportunity. Because Grace of Monaco is a stiff, stagey, thuddingly earnest affair that has generated far more drama offscreen than on. Even with skilled heavyweights like Nicole Kidman and Frank Langella on board, writer-producer Arash Amel's groaningly literal script and Christopher Gunning's intrusively treacly score drown every nuance in soapy banality."
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Screen had this to say: "Olivier Dahan may well be correct in his belief that Harvey Weinstein (American producer who wants to re-edit the picture) can't improve Grace Of Monaco, but it's hard to imagine how he could make it that much worse. A schmaltzy, soft-focus rear-end to last year's car crash biopic Diana, Grace Of Monaco is puzzlingly misjudged, a minor royal Euro-pudding which lands awkwardly in sub-Roman Holiday territory amidst a product placement blitz of diamonds and up-dos, chandeliers and yachts, soft-focus close-ups and bleachy Riviera hues."
Variety quipped: "The offscreen palace intrigue between 'Grace of Monaco' director Olivier Dahan and his on-again off-again U.S. distributor Harvey Weinstein turns out to be far livelier than anything on screen in Dahan's cardboard and frequently cornball melodrama about Grace Kelly's bumpy transition from Hollywood to actual princess — and her (seemingly single-handed) saving of her embattled sovereign state from French annexation. Handsomely produced but as dramatically inert as star Nicole Kidman's frigid cheek muscles, Dahan's strained bid to recapture the critical and commercial success of his smash Edith Piaf biopic, La Vie en rose, is the sort of misbegotten venture no amount of clever re-editing could hope to improve."
However, I found Grace of Monaco gripping, and I would disagree with all those, including Dahan, who said that the film was all about human emotions. That it was a love story. Sorry, Grace of Monaco is political, and its core interest lies in telling us about the struggle of the small principality (within France) against French onslaught. General De Gaulle and France, milked dry by their colonial and bloody adventurism in Algeria and threatened by the flight of business from France to tax-haven Monaco, order Prince Rainer to impose taxes on his citizens. And this revenue would go to France. Failure to do this will lead to French annexation of Monaco.
This is where Grace steps in – to stop Monaco from being pushed into the Dark Ages by De Gaulle. And it is not easy for her, tempted as she is by the offer of an excellent role from Hitchcock, who tells the Princess that the world awaits her return to the screen. Adding to all this mess is the tabloid stories of the royal marriage being on the rocks (not entirely untrue though).
Counselled by a priest who tells her that the greatest role she can play is that of Princess, and taught the art of regal style by another well-wisher, Grace uses a Red Cross Ball to invite European leaders, include De Gaulle, to save Monaco.
Was it that easy? I would never know. Was this true? I would not harbour a guess. But as the movie begins, a sentence that Grace of Monaco is fiction inspired by true events, sets at rest every speculation.
And this is what Kidman emphasised during a press conference early on Wednesday. Referring to the royal objection of her portrayal of Grace Kelly, Kidman said: "I mean, obviously, I feel sad, because I think the film has no malice toward the family, particularly toward Grace or Rainier. "It's fictionalization. You take dramatic license."
Kidman added that she understood Kelly's children feeling protective about their mother. "I still have respect, and I want them to know the performance was done with love."
She felt that there were many similarities between Grace and herself. "I obviously didn't marry a prince…Well, I am married to a prince. A country prince," she said, referring to her husband, Keith Urban.
And with an excellent performance as a troubled Princess in an equally troubled kingdom and with a hot-tempered Prince (who even slaps a foreign dignitary), Grace Kelly could never have had it easy. Certainly not when Hitchcock invited her with words like, "Gracie, the world awaits your return".
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Cannes Film Festival, and may be e-mailed at email@example.com)